Source: Review copy
Publication: 22 May 2018 from Orenda Books
In a reimagined contemporary Edinburgh, in which a tectonic fault has opened up to produce a new volcano in the Firth of Forth, and where tremors are an everyday occurrence, volcanologist Surtsey makes a shocking discovery. On a clandestine trip to The Inch – the new volcanic island – to meet Tom, her lover and her boss, she finds his lifeless body. Surtsey’s life quickly spirals into a nightmare when someone makes contact – someone who claims to know what she’s done…
Twenty five years ago, the tectonic plates shifted and a fault line opened up just off the coast of Edinburgh. A new volcano was born in the Firth of Forth and this volcanic island is known as The Inch.
For Surtsey, the daughter of a volcanologist, named after an Icelandic volcanic island, this island has been part of her life since she was born and despite its continuing minor earthquakes, it is a special place to her.
Now her mother is in a hospice, dying of cancer, and Surtsey is studying for her PhD in Volcanic Geology. Surtsey’s sister, Iona is also full of potential, but she has rebelled against academia and is currently living with Surtsey and their flatmate, Halima, in their mother’s house in Edinburgh. Iona is tending bar in a nearby hostelry and Halima is a student working alongside Surtsey.
Doug Johnstone is one of those sickeningly bright and talented people that can’t seem to put a foot wrong. And with Fault Lines, he has got it bang to rights again.
Johnstone’s novel is set against fault lines and seismic shifts, and these are reflected in the fault lines of the girls’ own family and other relationships. Surtsey is playful, confident and carefree and this causes her to ignore the consequences of her decisions, such as the impact that having an affair with her married Professor might have on his family and on hers.
The setting for this very clever and emotionally wide ranging novel is perfect. I believe in Inch island; small but significant in the Forth, Johnstone has conjured it out of the sea in a manner that is both vivid and evocative and despite its size, it casts a shadow over all our characters. Beautifully imagined, this is writing that rises above its class to take you on a journey that feels both real and intense.
As Surtsey journeys out in her small boat for an early evening delight with her illicit lover on the island, she little knows what awaits her. For not only is his dead body lying on the island, his boat is nowhere to be seen. Clearly foul play is afoot, and when, after pocketing the phone that he used to communicate with her, which was lying by his side, Surtsey begins to receive anonymous text messages from a tormentor, she views these rightly as a threat.
From this point, each and every one of the characters is under suspicion and as the Police come closer to suspecting Surtsey and her alibi crumbles, another body is found, this one also strongly connected to her.
Impressively plotted, this is a novel that captures a range of emotions and brings the reader quickly to empathise with its characters, even when you know they are off-piste with their actions.
What works incredibly well, though is the Gaia connection between Surtsey, her mother and the land. As they experience shakes and tremors, so does the earth. There is a fundamental connection here at the heart of the book that is subtle and well integrated, so that you know that the fate of Surtsey and the Inch are somehow inextricably linked.
For a young woman, Surtsey has a lot to deal with and I felt her pain, guilt, loss and occasionally her joy as we journeyed together through this book.
Johnstone has the talent to bring his characters to life; to make you care about them, and to be able to visualise them as you read. On the plotting front the book is beautifully dark, intense and twisty and as it leads you down and through the cobbled streets, you may break a heel or two before you get to where you are going.
Overall, highly enjoyable, deeply satisfactory and acutely well written.
About Doug Johnstone
Doug Johnstone is an author, journalist and musician based in Edinburgh. He’s had eight novels published, most recently Crash Land. His previous novel, The Jump, was a finalist for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. Doug is also a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow.
He’s worked as an RLF Fellow at Queen Margaret University, taught creative writing at Strathclyde University and been Writer in Residence at Strathclyde University and William Purves Funeral Directors. He mentors and assesses manuscripts for The Literary Consultancy and regularly tutors at Moniack Mhor writing retreat. Doug has released seven albums in various bands, reviews books for the Big Issue, is player-manager for Scotland Writers Football Club and has a PhD in nuclear physics.
You can follow Doug on Twitter @doug_johnstone
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