William McIllvanney is a well-known Scottish writer whose work I have seen recommended by authors such as Ian Rankin. There is now a crime fiction award named after him. I thought, therefore, that it would be good to read one of his crime novels and see why he is so well regarded. I did not do my research sufficiently well and chose The Kiln which is not, in fact, one of his crime novels but a book about coming of age and middle aged regrets. Despite this misstep I did enjoy this novel.
The main character of this book is Tam who returns from his life in Grenoble to Scotland where he was brought up. As he returns his thoughts turn to the time just before he went to university, the first of his family to do so. The book explores his coming of age and his attempts to be cool in an environment where he no longer fits in. The events of late teenage summer also inform his later life and show us how he has never fitted in and is socially awkward resulting in broken relationships and an inability to fulfil his potential.
The kiln of the title is the summer job that Tam has before he goes to university where he works in a labouring job with men who will never go away from the town of their birth and find Tam to be an easy victim for their jokes and worse. The book draws us back over and over again to the kiln as though that summer explains what happens to Tam later when he becomes an academic and is known as Tom. As he relives the summer of his past Tam/Tom begins to see that his background and the events of his past are not to be pushed aside but are the foundation of his adult life and make it meaningful.
This is a short book but very well crafted. Although neither of Tam’s lives, as working class Scotsman or ex-pat academic, are particularly familiar to me the author understands well what it is like not to fit in and to feel always like an outsider and he shows us Tam’s feelings and helps us to understand his actions. I may eventually find this author’s crime fiction but I very much enjoyed this cleverly written book about opportunities, isolation and finding yourself.