The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh
Jim Francis has finally found the perfect life – and is now unrecognisable, even to himself. A successful painter and sculptor, he lives quietly with his wife, Melanie, and their two young daughters, in an affluent beach town in California. Some say he’s a fake and a con man, while others see him as a genuine visionary.
But Francis has a very dark past, with another identity and a very different set of values. When he crosses the Atlantic to his native Scotland, for the funeral of a murdered son he barely knew, his old Edinburgh community expects him to take bloody revenge. But as he confronts his previous life, all those friends and enemies – and, most alarmingly, his former self – Francis seems to have other ideas.
When Melanie discovers something gruesome in California, which indicates that her husband’s violent past might also be his psychotic present, things start to go very bad, very quickly.
As soon as I heard about The Blade Artist, and that Irvine Welsh was bringing one of his most iconic characters back, I knew I had to read it. There was no way I was going to miss out on the return of one of my favourite literary creations. The good news? Begbie has returned and he is bringing a whole world of hurt with him.
As ever, Welsh’s writing offers a keen insight into the innermost workings of his protagonist. It is fascinating watching as Jim Francis devolves back into Francis Begbie. The process begins as soon as he steps of the plane. The longer he spends in his old stomping grounds the more their hold affects him. It’s a post-modern Jekyll and Hyde, his language regresses and the thin veneer of fragile civility he has expertly crafted is soon cracked. Scotland isn’t California and Jim has to reassert his old personality to survive. Francis ‘ Franco’ Begbie has to be given free reign.
It would be so easy to view Welsh’s creation as a two dimensional character. He could be dismissed as nothing more than a creature driven by his base instincts, primarily, hate and rage. He is so much more than that, however. Chapters in this novel flashback to his formative years and there is finally explanation as to who and what shaped him. Begbie is that most elusive thing, a perfectly realised anti-hero. You may be horrified by his violence or shocked by his attitudes. I’m sure you won’t agree with many/all of his actions but the motivations behind each and every one of them are crystal clear. By the end of The Blade Artist, you understand exactly why this man is the way he is. Hell, you might even empathise with him a little bit.
The people surrounding Begbie are caught up in the maelstrom of revenge and violence he is at the centre of. The two characters I found most interesting had to be Melanie, Jim’s Californian wife, and Elspeth, Begbie’s long suffering sister. Both women have the most insight into Jim Francis/Frank Begbie. Elspeth in particular has a wonderfully sceptical view of her brother. In her view, he has always been utterly evil and that isn’t ever going to change.
There are a handful of wonderfully introspective moments that I wasn’t expecting. Returning to the city of his youth gives Begbie a chance to reflect on the choices he has made and the outcomes those choices have produced. The old adage holds true, no matter how much you want it, you can’t ever go back. Sure you can revisit the places of your past but they are irrevocably different from those place now consigned to memory. Part of me can easily relate to Begbie’s dilemma. I left the area I grew up a decade ago, Glasgow not Edinburgh for the curious amongst you, and whenever I go back to visit it’s just not the same. The expectation is that everything will remain in a perfect little bubble of memory, and whenever you go back it will be as you left it. Sadly that is never going to be the case, we don’t exist in isolation and life moves on everywhere. There is a bittersweet undercurrent to the narrative as Begbie experiences this particular epiphany in his own inimitable style.
On a side note, I can only hope that this story eventually transfers to the big screen. In my head the role is inexorably linked with Robert Carlyle and his performance in Trainspotting. Carlyle has always been my go to bam. I’d love to see his interpretation of an old, more world weary Begbie. I read that as part of the current book tour for The Blade Artist, Irvine Welsh will be in Edinburgh this Sunday and that Robert Carlyle will be joining him on stage. Man, what I wouldn’t give to be in the audience for that one.
You’ll probably not be surprised when I tell you that Trainspotting had a profound effect on me way back in the early nineties. I’m sure my tattered old paperback is still lying around here somewhere. Decades later, Welsh’s writing is still just as captivating. The Blade Artist is angry and poignant and a whole host of conflicting emotions wrapped up in a perfect package. I was enthralled from beginning to end. When it comes to compelling fiction there is little better than an accomplished writer bringing their ‘A’ game. Irvine Welsh can deservedly be described as a master of modern Scottish fiction.
The Blade Artist is published by Jonathan Cape and is available now. Highly recommended.