The Walk Home – Rachel Seiffert

The boy turned up with no work boots, just a pair of old trainers, and a holdall slung across his back, almost as big as he was. Jozef looked at him, doubtful, on the doorstep; at his red hair and freckles, and the way he squinted in the summer light, the June sun already up above the rooftops…

‘Romek tellt me tae come straight here. He said you’d pay me.’

Jozef gives the boy a job on the development he’s managing and allows him to sleep there while the job’s on, although he’s not entirely comfortable with this arrangement – it raises questions about the boy’s family. But Josef’s got family problems of his own, his wife, Ewa, has returned to Gdańsk and he doesn’t know whether he’ll be welcome when he’s finally made enough money to return.

The story of the boy on the building site is told alongside that of a family living on the Drumchapel estate in Glasgow. While the building site section of the novel is set in the present day, the Drumchapel story is told from a day in the early 1990s when the youngest son, Graham, travels to Tyrone to play the drum for a band on an Orange Walk.

Graham was eighteen and rubbish at talking to females. Even some he’d known years like his brothers’ wives. He looked like a grown man, only he wasn’t yet; he was just all shoulders and neck, wide forehead, and no talk. Everyone in the flute band was aware of this, so when they were out in the Ulster wilds, it was Graham they dispatched to get the lunch, because it was a girl he’d have to speak to on the burger van: a fine one.

On this occasion he manages to talk to her well enough to end up have sex with her twice – once on the track behind the pub they’re drinking in after the walk and again in the hallway of her parents’ house. When he returns home, they speak over the ‘phone every few hours. Six weeks later, Graham goes to fetch a seventeen-year-old, pregnant Lindsey to live in Drumchapel.

The baby, Stevie, grows up to be the boy in the other half of the story. Seiffert tells the story of his time on the development with the Poles alongside that of his childhood, culminating in the reader discovering why he left home and why he hasn’t contacted them since arriving back in Glasgow.

The chapters about Stevie’s childhood focus on the whole family – Graham and Lindsey but also Graham’s parents, Malky and Brenda, Brenda’s brother Eric and their deceased father Papa Robert. Seiffert considers the things which cause ruptures in families. In the case of this family, heavily rooted in working class Scotland, religion and the politics of Northern Ireland – where both Lindsey and Papa Robert were born and grew up – play a part.

Brenda, and later Lindsey, hates Graham playing in the flute band while Papa Robert and Brenda’s other brothers disowned Eric when he moved from the estate and married a Catholic woman. While Stevie’s family clearly do their best for him, his home life is steeped in tension – his mother and father disagree about moving to a new place, away from Drumchapel; they disagree about the band; his Uncle Eric tells him religious stories and draws pictures of Glasgow containing religious symbols and ideas as he struggles to come to terms with his relationship with Papa Robert.

One of the things that’s impressive about the novel is that Seiffert centres it on family relations and while the themes of religion, sectarianism and class are present, they are never allowed to overwhelm the story. This is not a novel about religion, it’s a novel about a family, their relationship with each other and their connection to the place(s) they come from. Brenda sums it up in a phone call to Lindsey’s father not long after she’s come to live with them:

‘Lindsey’s been away before now, and she’s always come home again.’

It gave her heart that he could say that. Even if he spoke like his girl was a dead weight. A disappointment. It didn’t seem right to talk like that, not to someone he’d never met, not about his own child. But Brenda knew the weight of her own boys: much as she loved them, there were times they felt like four great stones. So she said:

‘They keep us fae slipping away wae the tide, anyhow.’

And Lindsey’s Dad managed a laugh, tight and short:

‘Aye well. That’s one way to look at it.’

Seiffert shows the damage that family members can inflict on each other without judging or stereotyping. Her characters are rounded individuals with varying views and ways of living. Her ear for the Glaswegian accent, successfully translated onto the page adds to the sense that this group of people could well be alive, waiting for Stevie’s return as I type.

The Walk Home has also been reviewed by fellow shadow prize judge, Eric. Click on his name for his review.

Thanks to Virago for the review copy

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12 thoughts on “The Walk Home – Rachel Seiffert

  1. I’m not sure why, but this author seems to have passed me by – it sounds as if she’s worth getting to know. Have you seen Lore, the film adaptation of one of Seiffert’s stories from The Dark Room? If not, it’s well worth a look.

    Like

  2. Great to read your thoughts about this, Naomi, and I’ve glad the prize has brought this to your reading pile as it was one of my favourite novels from last year. You’re right, the book is about family above all and how Stevie is caught in between and pushed out of the family because of larger issues. The dialogue does really bring the story to life – though since I don’t know it well can’t say if it’s accurate or not.
    Thanks for linking to my review. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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