The Barra Boy by Iain Kelly is carefully-crafted and intriguing exploration into Ewan Fraser’s childhood and an absolute pleasure to read.
Ewan Fraser is an ageing lawyer in a London office. He grew up in Glasgow but that was a long time ago. He’s on ‘close friends’ basis with a woman who works in the next building and they meet daily for morning coffee. Ewan Fraser’s life is predictable and safe until one morning, from the train, he sees a face from the past. Billy Matheson. Ewan is reminded of a summer on Barra and the unanswered questions he left behind when he departed suddenly to attend his mother’s funeral. Seeing Billy Matheson’s face, it wasn’t him of course, it was so many years ago, Ewan is sufficiently troubled as to immediately take leave and fly to Glasgow and then to Barra.
It is 1982 and 13-year-old Ewan has been dispatched from his home in Glasgow to Barra to live with his aunt and uncle, leaving his father to attend to his dying mother.
Ewan is downbeat; instead of helping his sick mother he’s facing a tedious summer on remote and sparsely-populated Barra. His aunt is well-meaning and his uncle, Ewan’s father’s brother, is rather grim. To add to Ewan’s first and less-than-positive impressions of the island’s inhabitants, he sees a younger boy hiding in a cave at a beach. The boy runs off without speaking. Ewan’s aunt and uncle make it very clear that Ewan must have nothing to do with Billy, but refuse to say why. ‘You’re too young to understand.’ The boy, Billy Matheson, appears again on another day making Ewan feel he is being followed.
Ewan makes friends with a local girl, Laura, and together they explore the island by bicycle. One day they’re joined at a beach by Billy and his mother Mhairi. Mhairi and her son are shunned by the other islanders and Ewan wants to know why. He and Laura overhear a snippet of a heated conversation between the Catholic priest and Mhairi and that leads Ewan to the church where he eavesdrops on a conversation between the priest and Laura’s mother which leads him, eventually, to the truth about Mhairi and Billy.
Ewan’s father calls; his mother has died and he leaves without time to say goodbye to Laura which is why Ewan Fraser, the ageing London lawyer finds himself back on Barra, knocking on the door of Laura Roberston’s house.
Haven’t we all got memories from childhood that don’t make sense? Wouldn’t we all like to travel back in time or place to get the answers to questions that have ached inside us for years?
I loved this book. The characters are carefully crafted, the plot skips along at a very readable pace, indeed the characters are the plot. As we would expect a small community like that on Barra would be complicated and tense and this is communicated to the reader in vivid clarity. The language supports the locations and the destination is well worth the journey. The closing chapters were the perfect ending to the book’s well-constructed literary question.