Beyond the Blue by Andrea MacPherson
Random House Canada, 346 pp, $29.95, hardcover.
I have the feeling we've been here before. Oh, not to this particular locale, not to this grey Scottish mill town on the banks of the river Tay; Dundee is an unusual setting for any work of the imagination. But the general vicinity is familiar. George Orwell's Wigan lies around the corner, and Frank McCourt's Limerick looms just down the road: what can Cloverdale novelist Andrea MacPherson show us that we haven't already seen?
Specifics, perhaps. Beyond the Blue is set in the netherworld of textile manufacturing, just after the end of child labour and a few decades before synthetic fibres replaced jute and sisal and coir. From a distance, this realm might seem almost domestic: weaving and carding and spinning, all that hearthside stuff. But jute fibres are almost as toxic as asbestos or coal dust, and the mill equipment appropriately satanic. Every so often, some young woman is spun into a remorseless machine, emerging a bloody, dead bundle of rags.
Every so often, too, some young woman precipitates herself from the heights of the Tay Bridge, or hangs herself in her cheerless room, or disappears to some larger town where a single mother is not automatically scorned. For economic predators are not the only ones to batten on these women workers: sex is as much of a threat as a pleasure, and there are those who are quick to take advantage of a factory girl's desire.
Sex and death, longing and loss—these are the poles around which MacPherson's story revolves. Widowed by the First World War, Morag is dying of jute-induced lung disease as her daughters Caro and Wallis plan for futures that never arrive. Meanwhile, Morag must care for her sister's daughter, orphaned by her mother's suicide and her father's wanderlust.
Given these cramped circumstances and its generally naturalistic tenor, Beyond the Blue is a surprisingly poetic account of working-class life. A fine memorial, then, to MacPherson's own Dundee-born mother and grandmother, and to a way of life whose passing is scarcely mourned.