The third novel of the Glasgow born and bred novelist and scholar Nick Brookes, Indecent Acts is a book whose characters and themes remain with the reader for a long time, despite an initially challenging quality to both the content and the language of the volume.
The book is written entirely in the first person, through the eyes of Grace Barker, a semi-illiterate forty-something mother and grandmother, who lives in Drumchapel, one of Glasgow’s (and Britain’s) most notorious housing schemes. The narrative is non-linear and ranges across Grace’s childhood and life as a mother and prostitute, and later as a worker in a local care home for the elderly. The principle focus of the novel is Grace’s series of attempts to keep her fractured and precarious family life together in the face of almost hopeless challenges.
Grace lives in a too-small council flat with her partner Bud, who struggles with depression, gambling and alcohol, her son Vincent, who has left school and wants to join the army, and her grandson Sean, whom Grace cares for in the absence of her daughter Frances, who fled a year before the narrative opens, in the grip of drug addiction.
This should not be taken to suggest the novel is simply another ‘misery memoir’. Indecent Acts is often (blackly) hilarious, but never patronising towards Grace and her family or community. Most of the humour comes from the greatest strength of the novel, its use of language, and specifically the misspelt patois that Brookes has invented to give Grace a voice. ‘Who is that wavin who there over there waving,’ the book begins. This can take some time to get used to, but it is never less than inventive, original and builds on a rhythmic strength that carries the reader along. It also lies at the heart of Grace’s story, mirroring her own long road to finding her own voice after years of alcoholism, abuse and prison spells.
The narrative feels like an authentic portrayal of working class (even ‘under class’) life in modern Scotland, building a complex picture of the generational, social, economic and political forces that work to disadvantage entire social groups, all through the story of one woman. Daughter of an Irish immigrant to Scotland who constantly moved around as a child, Grace never benefited from a full or consistent education, and so never masters any literacy. Family dysfunction and alcoholism lead her to a life of prostitution, although by the time the narrative begins, she has moved past these travails, although only very precariously, and the possibility, indeed likelihood, of Grace falling back is a source of great narrative tension throughout the novel.
The so-called safety nets that should be in place for Grace are explored through her eyes: church groups, the council, the prison service, and wider society itself. Grace undergoes a pilgrim’s progress throughout the novel, encountering a whole range of characters as she tries to hold together her family life, emotionally and economically. In many ways , the novel is a critique of the enormous inequalities in Scottish society. One of the characters Grace meets, in a surreal sequence, is a young, professional upper middle class girl with three properties under her belt and a well-paid academic job financing her ambitions in interior design. The contrast with Grace’s life could not have been more sharply made and will no doubt make many a reader squirm. However, this book is not a moralising text; it is full of humour, warmth and compassion. Much of this comes from the fatalism prevalent in Grace’s character, and indeed from all of us as to our place in the world.
The novel ends on a note of ultimate, but hard-won, redemption for Grace and her family. It certainly does not tie up every loose end, but the reader will be left satisfied with the time spent with such a wonderful character and with such a skilfully constructed and written book. Indecent Acts is a literary tour de force, and strongly recommended by this reviewer.