This novel is about three brothers and one family and asks a simple question: do you ever stop being a child to your parents?
The boy stepped out into the road. He stretched his arms out and his legs apart, making an X, palms facing the windscreen, the hands with a slight tremor that Jack only remembered later. His face had a questioning look that asked ‘Why are you doing this to me?’
These photographs were all taking in East Lothian, Scotland, where the novel is set.
Jack has been sleepwalking through his middle age. His wife has left him; his grown-up daughters no longer need him; and he rarely leaves his remote house on the east coast of Scotland. But when he is involved in an horrific accident, he is jolted out of his stupor, and embarks upon a new friendship that helps him to re-evaluate everything. Douglas is on the early morning Eurostar to Paris to have lunch with a woman he barely knows. Despite his responsibilities to family, work and friends, he is determined to risk everything for his obsession with a stranger. Angus is fifty-four. He has always prided himself on his happy marriage, his reliable car, his nice house, his stable career: there are no nasty surprises. But when a man thirty years his junior takes him to a stuffy room and tells him he no longer has a job, he finds himself suddenly in freefall. As a man without a profession, how does he now define himself? As the three Henderson brothers head to their big childhood home in East Fortune for their annual summer gathering, they steel themselves against sibling rivalry, parental expectation and the vulnerability that comes with being with those who know you best. Intense, humane, humorous and subtle, East Fortune is a moving story about lives at the crossroads; about life and love, chance and hope - and how families survive.
Ten years ago a friend of mine was driving home in Scotland when a student stepped ouzzly be to blame.
This is the starting point of East Fortune, a novel which takes this situation and imagines what happens next; and, in particular, the meeting between the driver of the car and the student’s girlfriend. It is, in effect, a love triangle in which one of the characters is dead.
The novel begins with death but it ends with love; and, in the middle, I have tried to say something about family life. Families with sibling rivalries which are never quite expressed, families where sons are still treated as children by their parents - even if they are fifty years old; families in which things haven’t always turned out as people had either hoped or expected; families in which children are embarrassed by their parents but unsure what to make of their lives; families with secrets that some members know and others don’t; families where the same jokes are recycled every birthday and every Christmas.
And so, essentially, it’s about love, death and family life – with all the complexities and vulnerabilities that come with being with the people that know you best.
Jack Henderson was trying to live as calmly as possible. He seldom left home, drew little attention to himself, and took few risks in what he considered to be a hazardous world. His was a life of disciplined withdrawal; without pain or disturbance.
It was two in the morning on the night of The General Election. Jack was driving home from Edinburgh. He could see the last of the city lights recede against a spray of summer rain. Traffic moved away from junctions and roundabouts with entitled confidence. This was how driving should be, he thought, with fewer vehicles and everyone knowing where they were going.
He noticed a figure ahead and in the distance. It was a man; standing as if his car had broken down. Perhaps he was waiting to hitch a lift.
Jack quickened the speed of the windscreen wipers, brushing away the rain. He noticed that the figure was younger than he had first thought, a student perhaps, staring into the windows of each passing car.
Jack kept his speed steady.
The figure stepped out into the road. He stretched his arms out and his legs apart, making an X, palms facing the windscreen, the hands with a slight tremor that Jack only remembered later. His face had a questioning look that asked ‘Why are you doing this to me?’
Jack noticed that the sleeves on the man’s shirt were too short and that his hair was longer than he had first thought. The figure did not seem to be part of the world.
Now the face was up against the windscreen; the flesh ruddy and sudden in the darkness.
Jack felt the weight of the collision.
The face contracted and fell away.
Initially Jack hoped that he had made a mistake. Perhaps he had been dreaming. Perhaps the moment of impact had been a bump in the road, a speed restriction, a dog or a fox.
But other cars were coming towards him in the opposite direction and they were already slowing. Hazard lights flashed behind him.
Jack could see a shape on the ground in the rear view mirror, a shadow in the darkness, clothing in the middle of the road.
Often I tend to imagine scenes as if they might be filmed from different angles and different points of view. Here’s how the opening dramatic incident of East Fortune might look if the book had been done as a graphic novel. It’s also quite like the storyboard for the opening of a film, but think it works in its own right as a graphic beginning.
The designer is Keith Robinson. You can find out more about his work here.
Here's the opening of the novel, read by Bill Paterson.