Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: Trainspotting


Written by Irvine Welsh

Published in 1993

Synopsis: Trainspotting follows the lives of a group of Scottish misfits, addicts, brawlers and criminals through a series of first person narrated chapters/short stories.

I decided to reread Trainspotting because I recently purchased the sequel Porno and I'm a firm believer of rereading (or re-watching in the instance of film) the original before you embark on the next in line. Trainspotting is up there with my favourite novels and Irvine Welsh is certainly one of my favourite authors, but what can I say about Trainspotting that hasn't already been said? Personally I think The Herald said it best on the jacket of my edition when they said that Trainspotting is "a loosely knotted string of jagged, dislocated tales that lay bare the hearts of darkness of the junkies, wideboys and psychos who ride the down escalator of opportunity in the nation's capital."

One of my favourite aspect of this novel is the language used, both the phonetic Scottish brogue and the stream of consciousness first person narration utilised through most of the book. Often I'm not a fan of people using punctuation or accents as a device because more often than not I feel like it's a form of laziness, that it is used to mask the fact that the author couldn't be bothered developing their characters or plot properly. However when done right it can be brilliant, and it has become almost a trademark of Welsh's novels.

The rough and almost indecipherable Scottish brogue used in Trainspotting forces you in to the world of the novel, into the mindset of the characters and it doesn't let you free until you reach the end of the book. Even then it is hard to stop thinking in the accent for a few days, at least it was for me. By making you think in the accent it eliminates any distance you might want to keep from the characters or the settings. So this novel drags you in and forces you to take in every single word, because if you try to skim over the difficult bits or shy away from the content you'll be lost and you will never finish it. 

The accents change with each character, some like Spud and Renton and Begbie utilise extremely thick Scottish dialects while others like Sickboy have a softer brogue while others have none at all. Added to their level of accent are certain internal or external language quirks, like Spud and his 'catboys' and 'likesays' or Sickboy and his internal conversations to Sean Connery in Sean's distinct accent. Through the combination of stream of consciousness and their specific dialects and quirks you gain a firmer grasp of the characters who make up this book, and they also act as signposts to help you recognise which of the many characters are now narrating.

So each chapter is narrated by a different character, some like Renton feature predominantly, while others have single almost self-contained chapters which serve both as an individual story and as another thread connected to the "knotted string of jagged, dislocated tales" that make up the overall story. One of my favourite parts of the novel is the chapter 'Bad Blood' which is a short story following Dave and the revenge he takes on Alan Venters, the junkie who knowingly passed on the HIV virus to Dave's girlfriend who then passed it on unknowingly to him. His role in the novel is contained within this one chapter, and yet it perfectly reflects the general emotional and social landscape of the novel. The story ends with a twist and even though it is only just over 20 pages long it is full of detail and character depth and all the good things you hope for in a book.

There is no getting used to this novel, just as you get used to the thick Edinburgh accent it switches to plain English or vice versa, it leaves you constantly waiting for the next change and hunting the dialogue for those character quirks. I found this format extremely challenging and rewarding. I felt like I had to work to get this novel, just as I did with Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. When you have to think about what 'Ken', 'gled' 'yin' 'dinnae' translates to, not to mention all of the slang, you absorb the subtleties that you may skip over otherwise, and ultimately it burns the story into your memory so that you can't just discount it, it can't just appear on your GoodReads read list and then disappear from your life.


  1. Amazing review. I was actually going to mention A Clockwork Orange, but you beat me to it. :)

    I found that it was easier for me to read this book out loud so the accent stuck with me for days. Even now, months later, I occasionally slip into it. I do a pretty good brogue so it impresses people and makes me feel less self-conscious about it, but it reminds me of how I slipped a said "I have a pain in my gulliver" after reading ACO and how everyone stared at me funny.

    This is definitely going to be one of my reads/views for the Books to Movie challenge. In fact, I've been chomping at the bit to read it again so I'll probably do it next month.

  2. I'm a little sad that I only just reread it so I can't use it for the challenge, but I'm definitely going to do ACO so I feel a little happier. I always read the first chapter outloud, only in prive though, but my attempt at an accent is terrible! At least in my mind it actually sounds scottish, outloud it is some weird hybrid of Scottish, Aussie and cockney!



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