‘In the Shadow of Piper Alpha’ by Iain Maloney
Iain Maloney speaks exclusively to PAJNewman here
167 men died on the Piper Alpha oil platform in 1988. In The Shadow of Piper Alpha is the first novel to explore the devastating aftermath of the disaster.
Marcus is on Piper Alpha that night. His daughter, Carrie, waits at the hospital as helicopters start bringing in survivors, never knowing if her father will be on the next one. Marcus survives, but his post-traumatic stress disorder develops into often violent alcoholism. As the story moves between Marcus and Carrie, between the past and present, their trauma grows and deepens, driving them ever further apart.
After decades living abroad, Carrie, now a respected volcanologist, returns to the University of Aberdeen to deliver a controversial academic paper with Marcus in attendance. Will a reconciliation be possible, or has too much time passed? (Synopsis courtesy of Tippermuir Books ) https://tippermuirbooks.co.uk/product/in-search-of-piper-alpha/
Confession time first: I’m not a huge Aberdeen fan. My first exposure to “the Granite City” were as a coach leading student athletes to brutal defeats while the rain sheeted in, consistently pishing it down horizontally. It was always dark. It was always wet. The opponents were horrid.
Then I read Christopher Brookmyre’s ‘A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away‘ which opens with exactly how I felt about the place twenty years ago:
“Europe’s Oil Capital. Honestly. The first time he heard the expression, he’d assumed it was a bit of self-deprecatory humour. That was before he learned that there was no such thing as self-deprecatory humour in Aberdeen…
‘Scotland’s Fourth City’ wasn’t exactly a winning slogan, especially considering that there was a dizzyingly steep drop-off after the first two, and it still put them behind the ungodly shit-hole that was Dundee. The also self-conferred nickname ‘Silver City’ was another over-reaching feat of turd-polishing euphemism. It was grey. Everything was grey.”
In the intervening years I’ve been back and, Escher-nightmare road network aside, I’ve softened my views on a place which can look really quite nice when it’s dry. The place is packed with good people.
And it is the people who come through in Iain Maloney’s ‘In the Shadow of Piper Alpha‘. The book focuses on the impact of that famous North Sea platform collapse which cost the lives of 167 men upon one family as the ripples of trauma and community grief seep like magma under the earth merely looking for a place to erupt.
Magma erupting is a metaphor which is also at the core of this novel which manages the rare trick of being sumptuously written, moving and heart felt as well as warm and – most often missing from “literary” fiction – really funny.
Maloney is a writer who can have characters describe themselves as having, “Eyes like an owl, pallor of pizza dough,” or describe their peely-wally complexion when the sun comes out in Aberdeen as “even fake tan somehow didn’t work and I ended up looking like an Oompa-Loompa with a liver complaint.”
This lends, what is after all, a novel predicated on sadness a lightness of touch and humour which is very Scottish but also adds a poignancy to the coping strategies and escapes used by the characters, no matter how damaging to them they may be in the short or long run.
Maloney is obviously a craftsman who thinks deeply about how best to convey the meaning of his work. Here he shifts between first and third person narration, moves the split narratives in time in order to show you the evolution of the way events far away geographically and chronologically can bubble to the surface at any time.
In the Shadow of Piper Alpha is the sort of novel which leaves you longing to meet up with the characters again whilst simultaneously feeling like you’ve been on an emotionally bruising journey with them. Beautifully written, intelligently structured and a triumph deserving of widespread acclaim.
Tippermuir Books: https://tippermuirbooks.co.uk/product/in-search-of-piper-alpha/
Iain Maloney is the author of seven books, including the critically acclaimed ‘The Only Gaijin in the Village’ (Birlinn, 2020), a memoir about his life in rural Japan.
He is also a freelance editor and journalist, mainly for The Japan Times.
He was born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland and he currently lives in Japan. He studied English at the University of Aberdeen, graduated from the University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing Masters in 2004, and holds a PhD from the University of Sunderland. (Biography courtesy of https://iainmaloney.com/)