A house is a building. An address is a geographic location. But a home is something more than these. In Hame, by Annalena McAfee, is a blend of literary academic novel and long meditation on home and belonging to a place. Hame looks at two people who come to the remote (fictional) Hebridean island of Fascaray. One is a fiercely Scottish poet who champions the Scots language* and all things Scottish, especially his beloved Fascaray. The other is a Scottish Canadian scholar who is responsible for setting up a museum to the poet’s memory. The poet is very clear about who he is and what he stands for. The academic…not so much. Over the course of this novel, we see how a house can become or fail to become a hame.
Hame is a book for academics. Brief chapters relate the day-to-day work of Mhairi McPhail, who has returned to her ancestral island of Fascaray to set up a museum for the “Bard of Fascaray,” the crotchety poet Grigor McWatt. Other chapters come from McWatt’s The Fascaray Compendium, a journal of flora, fauna, history, language, and gossip from the island. There are also chapters from McPhail’s book about McWatt and McWatt’s “poetry”—which are almost all translations of English poems into Scots. (These are fun to read, at least the little bits I can understand. Mostly, though, they’re incomprehensible unless you understand Scots.) Readers who feel at home (ha!) with both fiction and nonfiction will be comfortable with Hame. Readers who want a more traditional novel might get a bit bored with the more academic sections. Readers who wanted a more truthful tale might be frustrated by the fake citations.
What fascinated me most about Hame—apart from all the Scots words**—was the tension between the poet and the scholar. McWatt is absolutely himself. He will fight anyone who besmirches the reputation of his chosen language and country. He’s a nationalist. He wants nothing about his island to change and will write up a storm to keep developers and politicians and billionaires from despoiling it. McPhail, on the other hand, is coming out of a bad break up. She has doubts that she’s the right person for her job. She has questions about the gaps in McWatt’s life. She also has a young daughter that she worries she has uprooted. Her accent is posh British because a teacher worked very hard to rid her of her Scottish one. She sounds and feels very much like an outsider in the very small community of Fascaray. The two are almost polar opposites and their juxtaposition raises all kinds of questions about who we are. Are we who our parents and childhoods made us? Or is it possible to reinvent oneself?
Unsurprising for a book about homes and identity, Hame has a strong sense of place. McWatt’s Compendium (which several characters cite as evidence of hypergraphia) is so full of detail that I could clearly picture the towns, moors, and forests of Fascaray and its smaller twin, Calasay. I also got to know a fair few of the islands inhabitants, as they appear in both McPhail’s chapters as she interviews people for memories of McWatt, and McWatt’s chapters about the history of the island.
I had two problems with Hame, however. First, the way that Mhairi treats her daughter really bothered me. Second, I feel that the ending is too fast and unearned. There is a great twist near the end of the book that I don’t think was fully explored—which I found curious considering that almost every other topic in the book is explored in great detail.
Apart from my two issues with the novel, I quite enjoyed it. I loved the languages of the book, both English and Scots. McWatt’s vocabulary is incredibly rich and his translations are fun to try and puzzle out. (I am an unabashed word nerd.) I also enjoyed the idea at the heart of this novel that one might be able to completely transform oneself with enough confidence and enough self-knowledge. In Hame, completely transforming oneself means becoming one’s true self, the person we might be in our heart of hearts.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.
* There is no clear definition of what is a language and what is a dialect. I usually go by mutual intelligibility. Since I can’t understand most of the Scots words in Hame, I’m calling it a language.
** Thankfully, there is an extensive glossary at the end of the book.