It once again gives me enormous pleasure to welcome to Linda’s Book Bag an author I’ve met in person. This time it is lovely R.L McKinney. Rebecca’s novel Blast Radius is published by Sandstone Press in e-book and paperback and is available for purchase from all good booksellers, Waterstones, Amazon and via the publisher.
I was so interested in the idea that Rebecca had written a ‘war story that isn’t a war story’ that I just had to invite her onto the blog to explain.
Sean McNicol’s best friend Mitch saved his life in Afghanistan, in an act of impulsive heroism. Now Mitch is dead and Sean has left the Royal Marines with a head full of ghosts and guilt. Mitch talks to Sean from beyond the grave, by turns encouraging him, cursing, singing and leading him to question his own sanity on a daily basis.
Turning his back on his life as a soldier, Sean grudgingly returns to the downcast Scottish town of his childhood and takes a job moving second-hand furniture for the Once Loved Furniture Company. He is hired by a former schoolmate to clear her late father’s house at Cauldhill Farm, and gradually discovers that his own life is intertwined in the most unexpected way with the farm and its former occupants.
In order to find the thing he wants most- a bit of peace- Sean must confront the unquiet spirits of his past: his alcoholic mother, his absent father, his old (almost) girlfriend Paula, his own fatal mistakes in Afghanistan and, of course, Mitch.
A Universal Truth
A Guest Post by R. L Mc Kinney
Blast Radius, my debut novel, is the story of Sean McNicol, an ex-Royal Marine who comes home to his village in Scotland and struggles to settle back into civilian life. Sean has blast damage to one ear after an IED explosion in Afghanistan, and the only thing he can hear in that ear is the ghostly voice of his best friend Mitch, who died saving his life. The book’s title is a technical term: a blast radius is the spatial area affected by an explosion. In the book this has both literal and metaphorical resonance.
Since the book was published last year, I have been asked one question repeatedly. Why would a woman with no first-hand knowledge of war choose to write a war story? I suppose one could equally ask the same question of Pat Barker, whose award-winning Regeneration Trilogy had such a powerful impact on me. Put on the spot, my answer to this is that I hadn’t really intended to. I sat down to write a very different book and, being a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of person, this is what I produced.
However, this isn’t the best answer. The real answer is that Blast Radius isn’t a war story at all. It’s a home story. It’s a story about life in a working class Scottish community in these austere times. It’s a story about a man who comes back from war to a place he never wanted to come home to, a place which holds as many bad memories for him as the poppy fields of Helmand Province. He is as haunted by unanswered questions about his dead mother and absent father as he is by Mitch. Before joining the Marines, Sean was damaged by poverty, a chaotic childhood and the feeling of being an outsider.
This is territory I know well. In my non-writing life, I have spent many years working in regeneration, collaborating with people from disadvantaged communities who are working to life make better where they live. Many of them are people who, like Sean, have had to fight to overcome adversity. The fictional town of Eskbridge is set in Midlothian, where I live, and most of the places described in the book are pretty close to my own front door. So many books set in Scotland run to one extreme or the other: Highland mystique or violent urban streets. Blast Radius is about a Scotland that is workaday, a dreary post-industrial town surrounded by beautiful country, ordinary people who are trying to navigate their own daily minefields. The war element adds an additional layer of complexity, but that’s reality too. Around the corner from my office in Dalkeith, the local veterans’ charity supports men and woman who have been affected by this country’s relentless string of wars. The Chairman of that charity recently told me he sees Sean in every man who comes through the door.
The thing Sean wants most in the world is a bit of peace. To find it, he must learn to stop running from the chain of explosions that have defined his life. He must learn to live where he is. I think this is true for all of us, whether we have been to war or not.
About R. L. McKinney
R. L. McKinney was born in Boulder, Colorado in 1971. She completed a PhD in social anthropology at Edinburgh University in 1999 and since then has worked in social research and community regeneration. In past incarnations, she has trained horses, worked in a bar, taught creative writing, played folk and bluegrass music, and performed with the Scottish a-capella singing group Stairheid Gossip. She now lives in Lasswade, Midlothian with her husband and two young children. Blast Radius is her debut novel.