The Key of the Chest
Neil M. Gunn
“One of the most important Scottish writers of the twentieth century”
‘Times Literary Supplement’
“Modern Scottish fiction reaches its highest peak in the novels of Neil M. Gunn… Like Hardy, and indeed Joyce… he transcends regionalism and acquires universality.”
“Neil Gunn has given us a wonderful body of work – greater than Gibbon’s and therefore the greatest achievement of its kind in modern Scottish literature, and since Walter Scott”
Neil Gunn has won a huge and devoted following with his evocative novels recreating the life of the Scottish Highlands. In The Key of the Chest he returns to the world of the small Highland community, but now as a darker mood has crept in that was to characterise many of his later novels. The Highlands are no longer seen as a source of inspiration but as a prison, confining the spirit and enclosing the inhabitants in an atmosphere of prejudice and suspicion.
From the opening pages, when Dougald the shepherd strides through the stormy dusk to the little village shop, the mood is one of darkness and tension which persists throughout. In Dougald’s brother Charlie, under suspicion of having murdered a shipwrecked seaman and stolen from his chest, lies all the unhappiness that can assail a man unable to conform to the conventions of his roots. A disgraced divinity student who has lost his faith, Charlie is a man at odds with the world, and his forbidden love affair with the minister’s daughter, Flora, holds the potential for major tragedy. In their isolated cottage miles from the village, Charlie and Dougald are separated from the community, half-feared, half-despised, their integrity a matter for doubt.
Of all the community’s inhabitants, only the doctor may come and go as he pleases, accepted everywhere without question. Quietly he observes the mounting crisis, helping where he can but powerless to prevent the final catastrophe that so nearly destroys two innocent victims of the enclosed environment.
The Key of the Chest contains some of Gunn’s finest writing. Reminiscent in some ways of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, it is a wonderful evocation of a small fishing and crofting community under stress, full of the powerful descriptive writing that has made Neil Gunn one of Scotland’s best loved novelists.