Cold City – Cathy McSporran
Two weeks after his death, Susan McPherson sees her father on the street in Glasgow. Not long after, she takes an overdose and is committed to a psychiatric institution. There, she is given a cocktail of drugs and soon finds herself moving between the reality of the hospital and an alternate city, permanently covered in snow and ice. In her new world, her gay brother, Jamie, is married to a woman. The country is dominated by militant pagan groups and Christian fundamentalism is on the rise, led by the charismatic preacher, McLean. Susan is befriended by Raj, a mysterious man who creates paintings of wolves and Norse legends. As Susan is drawn into the struggles and relationships of this parallel world, her grip on the “first world” loosens further. Can she resolve the crises in the ice-bound city in order to return to reality?
Review: This book was so good, and then so bad, and I’m so confused, but I loved it so much.
The narrator, Susan, is committed to a psychiatric hospital after she wanders away from work, encounters her dead father on the street, and then accidentally swallows too many sleeping pills. While doctors try to figure out what’s wrong with her, Susan’s mind drifts between the hospital and an alternate-reality Scotland. This new Scotland is stuck in a perpetual winter and populated by wolves and warring religious groups. Susan’s gay brother, Jamie, is hiding his sexuality. He’s married to a woman and has a child. When a group of religious fanatics catches Jamie having sex with a man, his wife and daughter are taken away. Susan and Jamie journey to a mountain resort owned by a powerful preacher to get Jamie’s daughter back. Then things get weird. Like, really, really weird.
How does this book have so few ratings on Goodreads? For the most part, it’s a freakin’ fabulous novel! It’s one of those slower-paced, beautifully written, atmospheric books that I can get completely lost in. The descriptions of alternate-reality Scotland are so vivid that they’re still stuck in my brain. There’s one scene where Susan encounters a wolf with a doll in its mouth. The whole scene is tense and weirdly wonderful. I read it twice because I was so impressed with it.
The setting is definitely the strongest part of this novel. I’ve never been to Scotland (real or imagined), but the author makes the landscape easy to picture. The setting compelled me to read this book. Even though a world full of rampant bigotry isn’t a fun place to live, I wanted to be in this bizarre landscape. I actually neglected my real life so I could spend more time reading Cold City.
Under the surface, Cold City is about Susan’s complicated relationship with her family. Susan’s mental breakdown occurs on the day that gay marriage is legalized in Scotland, and Jamie’s boyfriend proposes to him. Throughout the book, there are hints that Susan has non-sisterly feelings toward her brother. The incest thing at the end is where the book went off the rails for me.
I don’t think the reader gets enough insight into Susan’s mind. The whole novel is strange, but the ending takes the strangeness to a new level. Susan makes a bunch of choices that aren’t explained, and I don’t fully understand them. Maybe the author is trying to show that the future is unknown? Every situation that arises in life has dozens of possible “alternate reality” outcomes? A dude can be engaged to a man in one reality, married to a woman in another reality, and in love with his sister in a third reality? I honestly don’t know. I think the majority of Cold City is amazing, but then it falls apart at the end. Or, maybe I’m just not smart enough to understand the ending. That’s always a possibility.
Finally, (this isn’t a criticism), but I have to point out that this book is written by a Scottish author, features Scottish characters, and is published by a small Scottish publisher. As a result, there are Scottish phrases and slang words. Since I’m American, the slang sent me scurrying to Google several times. Most of it is pretty easy to figure out from the context, though. (Polis = police.)
So, I’m very confused about Cold City. I loved it and was disappointed by it. I guess—if you can tolerate the oddness—I’d recommend giving it a try.