Victoria Hendry’s debut novel explores aspects and perceptions of national identity against the background of the Scottish independence movement and the development of the Scottish National Party at the time of the Second World War. The novel is based on well-researched historical evidence, though Hendry writes in the novel’s historical notes that some poetic licence is taken with the novel’s chronology of events. Extracts from the letters of Douglas Young, the then SNP chairman, are used as source material though A Capital Union names him as Douglas Grant, thus emphasising the fictional nature of the text.
Hendry’s narrative centres round the newly-wed 17 year old, Agnes Thorne, raised on a farm in Ayrshire and moving only recently to Edinburgh with her husband, Jeff. As Agnes adjusts to married life and the move to the capital, the differences in relationships between neighbours in a city tenement and the countryside are highlighted, together with Agnes’ response to those differences. Jeff, an academic compiling a Scottish Language Dictionary, is also an active member of the Scottish National Party. His campaigns against conscription from Westminster results in his imprisonment as a conscientious objector. Both Anges and Jeff are drawn to the charismatic Douglas Grant for his political and personal qualities.
For Agnes and also for us the readers, the characters of both Douglas and the Austrian airman, Hannes, call Jeff’s character and suitability as a husband into question. Agnes develops throughout the narrative; she experiences the challenges of being newly married and then widowed within a very short period of time. She runs through a range of emotions of love, desire, hatred and pity and gains strength from her response to adversity and antagonism, both physical and mental. She finds friendship and support for herself as she forges a path for her and her son. The novel highlights the complexities and conflicts of human relationships; its main characters are shown to have depths of personality which are very different to their first appearance and also different to the assumptions of Agnes’ family and Edinburgh neighbours. Family loyalties and good relations with neighbours in Edinburgh are further challenged by Agnes’ friendship with Hannes as deeply felt prejudices come to the fore.
A Capital Union is constructed from a mix of genres, cleverly woven together to give the reader a satisfyingly unpredictable and enjoyable journey. Aspects of historical and romantic novel form the main narrative threads and, as the novel develops, a thriller-like section is also included that is reminiscent of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps; towards the end the novel finishes on a lyrical note, “Love was the traitor who always won, creating her own foot soldiers from stolen moments and filling the silence between the guns.”
The theme of language and its importance is prevalent, for example, with the compilation of the Scots Language Dictionary being the topic of Jeff’s research work. Throughout the text, many Scottish words and phrases are used suggesting a strong sense of pride in Scottish identity and the beauty and relevance of the Scots language. In addition, a number of German words and phrases as spoken by the Austrian Hannes also bring that language to the fore; the similarity in sounds between both languages, and the way in which both languages are threaded through the text, subtly demonstrates the common bonds of humanity which transcend politics and war. In addition, the visual beauty of Scotland is reflected in the atmospheric descriptions of the Scottish landscape, both urban and rural.
The themes of A Capital Union are timely in the year of the Referendum. The historical interest, range of style and pace of the novel, together with the layered characterisation of its main protagonists , makes Hendry’s debut work an enjoyable and rewarding read.