James Buchan was a casual novelist, always interesting and unusual. His first novel was published in 1984 – it won the Whitbread Fiction Prize; his seventh and most recent was released in 2012. He has also written about Adam Smith, Money, the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment and the Scottish financial adventurer John Law, the latter a comprehensive and fascinating study, and history of the Iranian Revolution and its consequences. In the meantime he also farms in Norfolk and, to my happy surprise, has not only published his first novel in ten years, but announces it as the first in a series of six books, telling the story of a family Scottish or perhaps Franco-Scottish.
A Street Shaken by Light is a first-person account of the life and adventures of William Neilson from the age of 16, when he traveled from Edinburgh to Paris in search of a job at the Royal Bank of France, recently and very ambitiously created by this same John Law de Lauriston. Unfortunately, he arrives just as the bank is collapsing and Law has to flee the country, having spent a single evening teaching young William the mysteries of paper money and credit. Thanks to the vagaries of Bourbon France, Will is arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille. His fortune there fluctuates depending on the likelihood of Law’s return. He befriends a beautiful girl, the governor’s daughter, and a cat. Finally, after seven years, he was released and made an officer of the French East India Company, sent to Bengal.
There will be many adventures before it gets there, because it is on the one hand a picaresque novel, on the other hand a pastiche of the rather great Travelogues in distant lands which were in vogue in the 18th century. There are storms and shipwreck, years spent in French colonial outposts, service in India and wars in Persia. Will loves a great lady and is rejected by her, meddles or more than meddles in the jewelry trade, leads a company of near brigands in battles and sieges, fights a duel, is taken prisoner by the army of the British East India Company, fought a duel and ended up returning to France just as, during the War of the Austrian Succession 1742-8, the continental engagement of Great Britain offered an opportunity in 1745 to the Jacobites, so that Will finds himself in April of the following year on Drumrossie Moor where this first book of the story ends, to be, we are told, continued.
In a way, it’s all rather breathless, but Will’s narration is so light and danceable that, oddly, the novel also has a pleasantly quiet feel. It’s a bit like Will being at home in the back room of a tavern, offering an ignorant society reminiscences that tire, but never quite forbid, credulity. On his trip east, for example, Will is forced to replace the ship’s chaplain who refuses to leave his cabin where he sips champagne and watches his cases of wine. Likely? No. Acceptable and entertaining? Certainly. As with any club or bar storyteller, it’s all in the story.
James Buchan, educated at Eton and Oxford, living in Norfolk, may be considered an Anglo-Scottish, but this is a very Scottish novel, perhaps more in the vein of Stevenson than his own grandfather, John. There’s a light whimsy about it with echoes of Stevenson’s New Arabian Knights but also reminiscent at times of South Seas fiction. There’s some great material here, but it’s the way that’s captivating. Ultimately, novels succeed not just by what they do, but, more importantly, by how they do it. The “what” is pretty fun here, satisfyingly answering Scott’s question, “what’s the point of the plot, if not to deliver nice things?” – but it’s the how that makes the book exceptional. A lesser novelist would have extended Will’s adventures to six or seven hundred pages. Buchan knows when to cut and when to dance.
A Street Shaken by Light, by James Buchan, Mountain Leopard, 271pp, £16.99