Jemmy to the heart

Doug John­stone’s tale of a young house­breaker bat­tling to keep his fam­ily to­gether is his best yet, writes Louise Fair­bairn

The Scotsman - - ARTS -

Much of Doug John­stone’s work falls into two camps: ac­tion- packed ( Smoke­heads, Crash Land) or psy­cho­log­i­cally pow­er­ful ( Gone Again, The Jump). Last year’s Fault Lines saw him weld th­ese strands to­gether and in Break­ers he goes fur­ther, giv­ing us pacey ac­tion punc­tu­at­ing a painfully beau­ti­ful study of 17- year- old Tyler, who is try­ing to hold him­self and his fam­ily to­gether de­spite hav­ing been dealt one of life’s crap­pier hands of cards.

We are in Ed­in­burgh, al­though not the city’s tar­tan tourist hotspots but its long- ig­nored de­prived ar­eas. And John­stone doesn’t take us to a run­down tower block to gawp briefly be­fore mo­tor­ing back to safety; he em­beds us in the life of Tyler and his fam­ily so we un­der­stand their ac­tions.

This is un­der­scored from the start,

as Tyler looks af­ter his lit­tle sis­ter, Bethany – known to the fam­ily as Bean – ahead of a visit from older half­brother Barry, whose name alone makes the pair ner­vous. John­stone starkly cat­a­logues their lives: a drinkand drug- ad­dicted mother; Bean’s sole soft toy, stolen by Tyler from a house where the child had dozens; “two ragged so­fas” as the liv­ing room fur­ni­ture. But there’s sweet af­fec­tion be­tween the sib­lings, Tyler spin­ning tales of su­per­hero Bean Girl to en­ter­tain his sis­ter be­fore bed­time.

The de­light ends sharply when Barry ar­rives, and we’re pitched into a house­break­ing job, with Tyler’s half­sis­ter Kelly mak­ing up the gang as they cruise an af­flu­ent area min­utes away from their towerblock lives. But as the three grab jew­ellery from an el­e­gant home, the owner re­turns.

As she is mo­men­tar­ily dis­tracted, Barry, kitchen knife in hand, rushes her. They take their loot and walk past her bleed­ing body into the night. At school the next day, Tyler dis­cov­ers that the woman, who is in hospi­tal, is Monica Holt, wife of Deke Holt, head of the lo­cal crime fam­ily. Tyler gets home to be met by a Po­lice Scot­land de­tec­tive – and now there are sonorous crack­ing noises as the thin ice he skates on ev­ery day of his life starts to shift be­neath his feet.

As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, into his life walks Flick – all red pri­vate school blazer, red VW Bee­tle and mon­eyed vi­tal­ity. She is a slightly ob­vi­ous coun­ter­point, but there is brit­tle vul­ner­a­bil­ity to her, and she gen­uinely wants to help Tyler, even though she has no con­cept of what that re­ally means.

Break­ers doesn’t just touch del­i­cately on cur­rent so­cial is­sues via the dogged de­tec­tive deal­ing with a case, it puts the en­tire raw re­al­ity in front of the reader. John­stone has pre­vi­ously given us peo­ple

mak­ing bad choices and fac­ing the con­se­quences; here, Tyler must deal with the fall­out from de­ci­sions his cir­cum­stances in life make for him – he joins his half- sib­lings in house­break­ing trips, as that’s the only choice he can make when the al­ter­na­tive is Barry beat­ing him. Even the life- chang­ing de­ci­sion he makes to­wards the end of the book feels like the only pos­si­ble op­tion.

It’s not all un­re­lent­ing pain. There’s a spark of joy when Tyler and Bean res­cue a dog and her pup­pies, and a lump in the throat as we see Tyler with Bean – he wants her to have more and know less than he did at her age. There is a thread of hope that Tyler’s good na­ture can can­cel out the lack of pos­i­tive nur­tur­ing in his life, and at the end there is a hint of a bet­ter world ahead for him.

Break­ers is the most pow­er­ful and mov­ing book from John­stone yet – a call­ing card that no- one can ig­nore.

Break­ers By Doug John­stone Orenda Books, 230pp, £ 8.99

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