‘The Stromness Dinner’ by Peter Benson

Review by Bernie Bell

I’ve just read a novel – a new novel – just published. This is unusual for me. We usually get our books from charity shops, and go for tried and trusted authors – sometimes taking a chance on an unknown.  As they cost so little, it’s worth chancing it.  But – they are always something that we’ve chosen, personally.

When Fiona G, Editor of The Orkney News,  asked how did I feel about reviewing a book which has just come out, called ‘The Stromness Dinner’, this meant a very different approach for me.  It’s very much an un-known – author, type of book – I don’t read that many novels, and what I do read are usually ‘old’ – Jane Austen, Dickens and Trollope, or from the 20th Century – Kurt Vonnegut, George MacKay Brown.  I was very pleased to find Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy. 

Nearer in time, are Andrew Appleby’s ‘Skara’ books,   https://skarabooks.com/  which are still being written!

I told Fiona I’d have a go, wondering what it would be about, and resisting the temptation to Google it, so that I would read it fresh, if I read it at all.

I reminded Fiona that I do say what I think.  If I think something is not good, I prefer to just leave it alone, and not write about it.  If something appeals to me, or even if it doesn’t appeal to me, personally,  but I think that it’s well done, I will say so.  I genuinely don’t like knocking things when there is no real point in doing so.

If I’m not keen on a book, I find it hard to read it at all.  On the other hand, if I like it – I’ll sing its praises!

So, the publisher, Seren Books, sent me a copy, and I started to read it. 

It starts off about a bloke, Ed, who lives in Bermondsey in London, and is a builder by trade.  It’s written in the first person, by Ed – in a lively kind of way, which reminded me of Ian Dury & The Blockheads song ‘My Old Man’…

Ed has a client, Marcus, who’s business card says ’Consultant Strategist’ – which means he’s a banker – regardless of which, Ed thinks he’s  “sound, and sound’s all you need to be.”  Ed meets Marcus’ sister, Claire, and worlds collide, as Claire is Posh Totty, with a capital P – and Ed becomes enthralled. 

Then, Marcus and Claire inherit a property in Stromness, ask Ed to go up to Orkney and do the property up for them, and Ed agrees to take on the work.

My hackles begin to rise here – oh, aye – one of those. Is he going to have it done up then sell it?  Is he going to rent it out long-term to folk who need somewhere to live?  Or to have it as a holiday home for himself, in which case it would lie empty most of the year?  Or to make a lot of money from renting to visitors, in which case it would again sit empty for at least half of the year?  I’ve said my piece about this situation, here – https://theorkneynews.scot/2020/06/18/when-is-a-home-not-a-home/

And….why ask someone from Bermondsey to do the work?  Why not ask someone in Orkney? Not necessarily an Orcadian, but maybe someone who  lives here, and who needs the work?  Hackles rising, but reminding myself that I said I would read it, and review it, I continued to read.

When Claire turns up in Orkney to see how Ed’s getting on with the work –  they start to get real. 

“….for a door had been opened and we’d stepped through.”

“like ice slowly melting and dripping into the voids that had grown inside me.”

Sometimes, people move to Orkney, find that their expectations and demands of the place aren’t being met, and leave.

Others arrive, and realise that it isn’t a matter of demands and expectations, it’s a matter of co-habiting with the place, and how it is.

I won’t just tell the tale – you can read it for yourself, if you choose to.

I won’t claim that it’s great literature, but it is lively, and human. 

A  person who likes visiting Orkney will enjoy recognizing references which could remind them of their visits – very much so.

As it turned out, it is a book I could read. Those people are people I had an interest in.  That’s my problem with novels – they are often about people that I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with in real life – so why spend time with them, in the pages of a book?  

People are people, and ‘The Stromness Dinner’ is one of those books which show this to be so.  Peter Benson is writing well about these characters – he’s creating them, forming them, realistically.  He also likes to describe ingredients, cooking and eating, almost as much as Andrew does! 

He writes well of these people and their world – it’s just a world I don’t have much to do with……..until they come to Orkney and………start to get real. 

If the reader would like to read something more of Stromness life,  I recommend ‘Iss’ by Fiona MacInnes. That’s about real folk.  Sometimes  uncomfortably so – but – real. 

I could be said to be damning with faint praise, to say that it does have something of Orkney, then refer the reader to a different book, but I said I’d give my honest opinion, and here it is……

‘The Stromness Dinner’ is about two very ‘modern’ people coming to Orkney, and how it helps them …helps them to open up….ease up……helps them to …be. 

‘Iss’ is about life here as it has been for a long time, and maybe, will continue to be.

And for the essence of what is and what will be, as long as people are people, there’s ‘Greenvoe’ by George MacKay Brown.

The Stromness Dinner publishes on 28th of October – you can pre-order by clicking on the link.

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