“Suicide is painless – it brings on many changes” as the immortal lines from the theme song to “M*A*S*H” put it. This is not true, and the sheer stupidity of this line is the theme of this story, but from a very unusual and quite disturbing perspective.
That is not a spoiler, as it soon becomes evident that James McSorely intends to commit suicide, and that it is the intention of Buchan, Farquhar and of the very strange community that is Moristoun to prevent him from doing so. McSorely is lured by Buchan, through an appointment, made online, with a company called Scenic Suicides to the island of Moristoun, where he meets Gail, and begins a tentative process of rebuilding his life.
To say that there is a mystery at the heart of Moristoun is a bit like describing Hell as uncomfortably warm. And I choose my similes carefully. The unravelling of that mystery can only be done by those who have the patience to read an ancient tome housed in the library. After all, where else but in a book will you find a distillation of the wisdom of the ages? And Moristoun does not appear to have any truck with communications technology later than Gutenberg’s invention The understanding of the Book, however, is not available to those, like McSorely and Gail, who are on time-limited visits to Moristoun, that is, not permanent residents.
To go any further into an explanation of the plot really would spoil the book. It is sufficient to say that this book is about the mystery of life itself, and how we, as individuals, set about solving that mystery.
McAllion tells his story with mordant wit and grim humour. He has a turn of phrase that would make Christopher Brookmyre or Irvine Welsh jealous. Given the subject, McAllion has an extraordinary ability to make the reader laugh out loud. He paints his characters with such understanding and compassion that we grasp the nature of their despair, and hope with them that Voltaire was right in arguing that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. My only problem with this is that if Moristoun is the best, it is not very good.
But the whole point of the story is that Moristoun is not the best, and that we have to strive for something much better. That means, if we are to redeem ourselves, we have to help others because that is the right thing to do. I suppose that this is, essentially, a very moral story. It looks for us to do the right thing, although it recognises that things can go badly wrong.
McAllion does not make the mistake of lecturing us. He tells a story. He jokes with us. He poses puzzles and then unravels them. He leaves us to draw our own conclusions. But most of all, he entrances us. We want to know what happens to McSorely and Gail. We want to know if they get off the island. We want to know how they cope when they realise, like A.E. Housman, that they cannot go back again.. We want to learn how to survive life.
This is a very special book. It was written to exorcise the ghost of a suicide. Whether it succeeds is a moot point – can you ever exorcise a suicide? But people have to learn to cope, and this story may help people to do that. It forces you to think, and it may help you to understand. What else could an author possibly ask for?