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Book Review Synthesing too much material into what is a moderately scaled work backfires as the narrative bends under the sheer weight of numbers

Common Cause
by Kate Hunter
Fledgling Press, £9.99

 

COMMON CAUSE is an almost immediate sequel to Kate Hunter’s powerfully focused debut novel, The Caseroom.

Although the former is still tightly located within the predominantly working-class districts of Edinburgh, the powerful and sometimes disturbing eddies created by forces and events many miles away make this both a more complex and less satisfactory read.

Six years on and the first world war, revolution in Ireland and the ongoing campaign for women’s suffrage cross the lives of Iza Orr and her family like weather fronts, bringing turbulence and new perspectives.

Hunter is at her best in demonstrating the impact of such momentous events at a micro level.

The military conflict sees adult male members of Iza’s family, including her wraith-like husband John, pressured to sign up.

Reports of the defeat of her hero John Connolly and his Citizen Army draw Iza’s memory back to thoughts, both wistful and furious, of her earlier lover Roddy Mac.

And working as a live-in nanny for a patronising and idealistic bourgeois suffragette ensures that Iza experiences the contradictions and confusions of non-class based activism.

There are collateral moments of real human poignancy. John Orr is horribly wounded in Flanders and Iza’s — and her young children’s — visit to him in an asylum is like a descent into a regimented hell.
The discovery by Mary, who has grown up thinking Iza was her aunt, that she is in fact Iza’s daughter produces an unresolved tension between them.

Iza’s return to her beloved caseroom, a dispensation overturning a 1910 agreement due to her becoming a war widow, is full of sadness and not at all the triumph it might once have been for her.

She can see the devastation caused by that agreement to suspend the recruitment of female workers as there are few women “at the frame.” While once she would be setting type for encyclopaedias and books of folk tales, now she is largely restricted to abrupt and uninspiring military messages.

When a fire destroys the printers she works at, Iza seems to lose more than her beloved tools.

So this is very much a novel about loss and coping with events beyond one’s control.

It is not a pessimistic work, though, as Iza and her comrades are shown fighting back against a bosses’ lock-out with the fantastic phrase “printerdom is no home to fearties.”

But the weakness of this book is that Hunter attempts to synthesise too much material into what is a moderately scaled work.

There is an excess of secondary and tertiary characters and the narrative lines at key junctures bow and bend under the sheer weight of their numbers.

That Hunter knows an enormous amount about the period and the dominant issues and personalities in wartime Edinburgh is without question.

A more active editorial intervention might have made this knowledge less of challenge and more of an education.

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