"Scouse Gothic Book 1: The Pool of Life" Book Review
Written by Rachel Knightley
Published by YouCaxton Publications
Written by Iam McKinney
2015, 200 pages, Fiction
Released on September 1st, 2015
The City and the gothic is a literary relationship with plenty of history and street cred behind it. London and Edinburgh have had more than their fair share, so it's an enjoyable dig at our preconceptions that Ian McKinney's Scouse Gothic comes across as a curiously oxymoronic premise. Well-rooted in Liverpool's geography and vernacular yet never overwhelming its story with either, Book 1: The Pool of Life is as grounded in its time as it is in its place. Vampires may be immortal, but they still live in a very recognisable, real world of affordable bars, patronising officials, messy relationships and deadly feuds.
We meet Lee Melville waking to a hangover, after what he gradually remembers as his first meal – i.e. victim – in two years. Thanks to being in this dazed state, Melville doesn't look away soon enough when he finds himself eye to eye with another vampire in the bar where he's stopped for a drink: that's not the done thing; usually vampires avoid each other's hunting grounds. Far from offended, however, Sheryl picks him up for a cheerful flirt and a drink that turns into an opportune suck (of each other's wrists, naturally: we are talking about a vampire encounter, and in public). It's also the start of something deeper. Sheryl, like the best moments of the story itself, is heart-warmingly honest and affectionate yet coldly and clinically Scouse, as unsentimental as the city and life she finds herself in. There's a wealth of warmth that's never sentimentality in McKinney's portrayal. Sheryl both describes and personifies what it is to be Scouse: no feeling sorry for yourself or – the ultimate crime – taking yourself too seriously. Sexy and funny, warm and tough in all the right places, this totally lives us to its premise: as Scouse a read as it is a gothic one.
The past and the present, like the vampires and the mortals, co-exist with quiet discomfort in McKinney's Liverpool, and it's not long before the histories Sheryl and Melville only reluctantly share with each other come back to (sorry) bite them. We're treated to a kaleidoscope of interconnected lives that is all too believable of a city that will always be a smaller world than it looks. So far, so like the world as we know it – but among the ensuing life-stories we are treated to the swearing guardian angel, whose disguise as a pigeon has been breached by an unknown failure in divine assistance, and has left him accidentally visible to a man who is near to suicide. A more intelligent, no-nonsense practical discussion of the whats and ifs of faith and belief could not be asked of a novel, and this one is funny enough as well as clever enough to call to mind Douglas Adams' concepts of what mortals can understand and what might be happening around us whether we get it or not. Another gem is the rediscovery of the little sister who Sheryl was protecting when her life went down this path, now old enough not to be surprised to see her as the same twenty-one-year-old sister who disappeared all those years ago.
There's no getting away from the fact that a more assertive edit would have ferreted out the repetitions and the tense/punctuation/capitalisation blips that can't help but jolt the reader out of a smooth sense of reality. Much that could have been as funny and moving as the sections that are fully fleshed out (no pun intended) with dialogue and full sensory detail are left to drown as lists of actions, blunting rather than heightening the reader's sensation of tension and action: a far cry from the prose that makes much of this such a thoughtful, fun and exciting read. All in all, there's enough of a stable narrative voice to keep you caring and believing, but magic realism (if God and vampires won't be offended at the term) needs to create and sustain a world for that magic to work in. In its best moments, Scouse Gothic Book 1: The Pool of Life does this exquisitely. There are touching show-don't-tell moments as the unknown connections between the characters reveal themselves, through history, geography and human/vampire/divine intervention aligning and misaligning over time, but it's frustrating McKinney poured this into a few sprints, rather than sustaining it for the full marathon.