Article published on November 7, 2011.
Wall of Days begins quietly yet beguilingly, in a setting resonant with literary echoes. The narrator is an old man who has been marooned on an island for twenty years, marshalling the resources of his environment with the dogged vigour of a Robinson Crusoe. Yet this is no tropical paradise – the book’s opening sentence “It has been raining here for ten years” ushers in a muddy, inhospitable terrain that is Hebridean in its bleakness. This unforgiving climate, coupled with muffled allusions to a lost civilisation the man has left behind, might remind the reader of the post-apocalyptic dystopia of McCarthy’s The Road – equally, Bruce’s spare, laconic prose is somewhat redolent of McCarthy’s (if less intense and poetically honed). The old man could also be seen as a Prospero-figure, formerly powerful but castaway on the island by his enemies: as in The Tempest, equally, “the isleis full of noises” and eerie presences that seem to haunt his solitude.
The story gains momentum when a stranger is washed ashore: Bran (the old man) looks after him and soon recognises him as his erstwhile counterpart, Andalus, the leader of an opposing country. But the stranger’s silence and inaction quickly make the reader doubt his existence as anything more than a figment or projected memory (more like, perhaps, Tom Hanks talking to his basketball and calling it Wilson in the movie Cast Away). From here on in, we start to have the sense that this narrator is less reliable than we first thought, as the novel works subtly to blur events as they actually occur and events as Bran – perhaps gradually losing his grip on reality – sees them.
This effect comes to the fore when Bran travels back to his homeland, supposedly to bring Andalus to trial. He seems more motivated, however, by an Odyssean desire to return to origins and seek reconciliation, as well as to rediscover his lover Tora. Yet in his home city no-one seems to remember or want to acknowledge him: suddenly we are in a baffling scenario out of Kafka where truth and memory have become relative concepts controlled by shadowy powers-that-be, and Bran turns into a Josef K, thwarted at every turn in his struggle to assert his own identity or find answers about his buried past. If – as in The Trial – there is an implicit allegory going on here that can be read in both political and existential terms, the fact that Bran appears to eventually win through and force the authorities to admit that they’ve been blocking him from the truth and from Tora seems at first an affirmation of individual will and faith in cultural memory which never arrives in Kafka. After his trial, Bruce refrains from giving Bran the Josef K-like execution we might have been expecting – the price of his acts of defiance are (not to give the book’s climax away)in the end perhaps worse than death.
One of the several ways Alastair Bruce shows considerable novelistic skill and judgment in Wall of Days is in moving the book through distinct gear-changes that keep the reader engaged. Back on his own island at the end of the novel, Bran finally loses his mind and the prose shifts register in keeping with this sense of dissolution: it becomes hallucinatory and non-linear, full of treacherous bogs, corpses and ghosts. Resisting the closure of a more positive ending, Wall of Days trails darkly away with the same thought-provoking and poetic ambivalence it has sustained throughout its length.