Ivor Punch is the (former) police sergeant of a small island off the west coast of Scotland. He’s a man of few (spoken) words but a prolific letter writer, which he liberally punctuates with the f-bomb. (Used more as an outburst than swearing, so it didn’t offend this reader.) His letters are funny, revealing, poignant, matter of fact and heartfelt and I loved reading them. But I also enjoyed getting to know the story around those letters: that of the islanders, and in particular the wider story of the Punch family through the generations.
The novel jumps around between various family secrets, local lore and custom and takes in a wide range of subjects including the demise of crofting, the sense of belonging to a family, a community, an island and being an outsider; the relationship with the land and the sea; the relationship with the mainland and losing the island’s youngsters to the lure of the mainland’s jobs and opportunities.
It reaches back over generations to cover the time of an intrepid female Victorian explorer and her stay-at-home sister, a young record-breaking long jumper who seems forever suspended above the island’s sandpit in the eyes of the islanders, the legacy of a terrorist attack and its reverberations when the case is re-examined, a tragic young woman and a disgraced banker who seek solace on the same clifftops but who are separated by generations, fathers and sons and unwed mothers, friends both local and famous, islanders and mainlanders, and finding home.
All island life is here and the island left its peaty handprint and salty tidemark every bit as much upon this reader as it does upon each one of the characters. It even manages a wry nod to the author’s songwriting in one of the chapters and a bizarre committee of two which had me chuckling to myself. I sometimes struggled to keep the relationships of the characters straight in my mind as I was reading but that was probably partly due to my gulping down this book in one sitting. But I enjoyed piecing the relationships together and working out how they all fitted together in the end and I loved this book, its Whisky Galore-esque characters and its riotous evocation of shifting island life.
The Letters of Ivor Punch is Colin MacIntyre’s debut novel and is published by Orion books. Colin MacIntyre is a songwriter who performs under the name the Mull Historical Society and you can find out more about him, his writing and music on his Mull Historical Society website.