A few years ago, I was chatting to a publisher in Edinburgh, who had kindly bought me my lunch. It was a nice quiche and somehow that was enough to convince me they were worth working with. Not all publishers are that generous, trust me. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of meetings with people connected to the Scottish publishing industry, some more accommodating than others. During one meeting, I was told my book would be difficult to publish because they weren’t sure where to put it. Not quite understanding them, I said, “It’ll sit on a book shelf, of course.” What they really meant was that in order to sell my book, they had to know which genre to put it under – because everything has to be in the right place so a reader can find what they’re looking for. It’s that simple. In the end, “Scottish Fiction” seemed as good a description as any other. But what of the authors whose work can’t be easily categorised? Where do they fit? Inhabiting your own strange land can be a lonely experience. This happened with Oh Marina Girl, a devious little masterpiece that was sold as a crime novel (the easiest genre to sell a book in), yet still managed to baffle the readers, who weren’t sure what they’d just read. For the rest of us, we knew it was the most cultish cult novel from a Scottish publisher in years. I was obsessed. Everything about it called to me. The cover, the plot, the punk spirit. All of it perfect.
I first heard mutterings about Oh Marina Girl at the library where the ex-librarian mentioned she was buying in some new stock from Contraband, a crime imprint of Saraband. I knew of Saraband, of course. In my previous life as a writer of fiction for teens, I saw the Managing Director wandering around The Mitchell Library looking like she had ten different things to do at the same time. That’s the way I always try and look, yet I’ve barely got one thing to do, let alone ten. My interest piqued by the title (an anagram of ‘Graham Lironi’), I followed up on Oh Marina Girl and read it in two nights. Then, to be sure it actually happened, I read it again. It’s a Glesga book through and through, with all the places I knew, including The Mitchell, used for location. I appreciate authors who root an outlandish plot in reality, because you’re left with a sense of could it really happen? or worse, could it really happen to me? Oh Marina Girl is a book that requires careful reading, because it actively tries to trick the reader. But the book isn’t just anagrams and a vendetta against cozy crime, in fact the story’s emotional heart is the relationship between the main character and his family, which pulls you in deeper until the traumatising finale.
Oh Marina Girl tells the story of a newspaper editor who receives a ransom note that threatens to kill a hostage who criticised a book.
Already, I’m on the kidnapper’s side. What’s particularly horrifying for the editor is that the more he looks into the letter, the closer to home it all becomes. Literally. What follows is his story, the impact of his investigation, and the true fate of his missing wife and son…
Somehow, it felt unfair that this book didn’t become a huge smash, though the contrarian in me valued how cult it was, giving me a sense that this was my book, just mine. Graham Lironi has a unique voice in every page he puts out, which can sometimes make for a difficult sell. Maybe the audience wasn’t ready for something as abnormal as Oh Marina Girl. It isn’t the sort of effortless novel you sit and read without thinking – it demands and expects more of the reader. Was it too divisive? Too complicated? Too pulp? Too literary? Maybe it wasn’t in step with the Bloody Scotland readership of 2015? I’m still unsure, but for me there is no other Scottish novel that felt quite as robbed of attention as Oh Marina Girl. Hopefully it’ll be recovered by curious readers some time in the future, a cult novel for an audience ready for what it has to offer.