Buddhism has really hit Scotland in a big way – a Tibetan temple in the Borders, a Holy Isle off the west coast, a priory in Portobello, and now a Glaswegian house painter joining the ranks. Anne Donovan’s first novel, Buddha Da, is a gentle comedy of manners which, while examining the boundaries between the spiritual and the mundane, sheds unexpected light on other areas. She uses Glasgow vernacular convincingly as she steers her novel between the three distinctive voices of the main characters, each well-realised and thoroughly believable.
Jimmy is a big-hearted decorator who runs his own business with his brother and lives with his wife, Liz and their daughter Anne-Marie. Life trundles along – church, family, bevvy, a few laughs along the way – until Jimmy meets the lamas. Previously he was a man who could do karaoke with the best of them, let his pants as well as his hair down, and think it was all just a bit of a carry on. Then Jimmy goes on a weekend retreat and is drawn into meditation. The facades of everyday life begin to crumble. Initially his family take little notice of his new interest, assuming it to be a passing fad, like so many others abandoned along the way. But when he gives up drink and announces his intention to become celibate, familial relations hit a crisis.
Events spiral when Jimmy opts to attend a Buddhist talk rather than his daughter’s school concert. He even shuns the family Hogmanay piss-up in favour of meditating alone. Liz tries to ignore the changes that threaten her marriage, but Jimmy moves out, into a Buddhist Centre. She is adrift on her own, but soon embarks on a lusty affair with a university student. Meanwhile, their daughter Anne-Marie tries hard to understand and not take sides, despite her own life being full of teenage uncertainty and angst.
Their struggle to co-exist is funny and painful by turns. Donovan’s take on Buddhism is both knowledgeable and sympathetic, and she also elicits a comic seam through Jimmy’s discovery of inwardness.
With a clear, compassionate voice, Donovan illuminates the tensions of family life and the age-old battle for mutual understanding. Buddha Da, now out in paperback from Canongate priced £7.99, is well worth a read.
Copyright Clare Simpson 2005.