Waterline, the second novel by the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year winner Ross Raisin, follows the steady decline of a Glaswegian former shipbuilder following the death of his wife Cathy. The novel starts after the funeral, with the marital home crowded with Mick’s sons and in-laws. Slowly, however, the relations and well wishers dissipate, and Mick begins to gradually remove himself further and further from the life he and Cathy shared. The house is ‘hoaching with nudgewinks’, and so he shifts from their bedroom into the living room, then the garden shed, and finally leaves Glasgow altogether on a one-way coach trip to London. There Mick’s downfall continues as he struggles against exploitative employers and his own demons, and the novel charts his decline into destitution and homelessness.
Although written entirely in the third person, the frequent slips into Mick’s own consciousness, along with a liberal peppering of dialect terms and phrases, creates a strong intimacy between Mick and the reader. On brief occasions Mick is encountered from the point of view of another character, often but not always unnamed and otherwise incidental to the narrative. The technique is unsettling at first, but it successfully widens the perspective whilst maintaining Mick as the focal point of the narrative.
The novel’s language, along with Mick’s sharp wit, makes Waterline a pleasure to read even when the situations it depicts are unpalatable. There are individual characters who treat Mick with shocking contempt, who contribute to his downwards spiral, and turn their backs on him once he hits the bottom. The managers of the Heathrow hotel and the student at the cash machine are two such examples. The novel also charts some of the wider problems in society; jobs are chronically lacking, wages are low and unemployment is a constant threat. The closure of the shipyards deprived Mick of his primary trade, and the damage this has done to his sense of self-worth is palpable. When, in an art class, Mick finds himself at a loss for something to paint, he automatically starts on the QE2, the last ship he worked on before the yard closed so many years earlier. Issues surrounding class, bureaucracy, and the exploitation of employees are also touched upon. Mick’s struggle with his loss of a profession is compounded by the fact that this very job, through both the ignorance and then negligence of his managers, exposed his wife to the asbestos that killed her. Despite this, he cannot bring himself to engage in the harrowing process of compensation claims, ‘killing her over and over’ every time he has to write ‘deceased’.
Waterline could very easily have been a morality tale on the plight of homelessness and the evils of a society that contributes to and tolerates it. However, each negative character and situation is balanced by the many individuals and organisations that try to help out and are rebuffed along the way. Mick, after all, is not alone in the world. He has family, friends, and wealthy in-laws. Once in London, especially once homeless, Mick encounters a whole host of people who try to help him, from volunteers (‘the Hallelujahs’) to social workers to strangers who offer him sandwiches as they pass. Some of these people are patronising, admittedly, and some have an agenda, but just as many are genuine and sensitive in their attempts to provide assistance. The frustration of the novel comes from Mick’s own inability to take anything from these encounters.
Waterline, it transpires, is not so much a study in homelessness as in the paralysing effects of depression. This is never overtly stated, but it comes through in myriad small details in the course of the novel. Mick’s obsession with sleep is one such example. Over time he finds himself sleeping in, on and under beds, sheds, park benches, bushes, buses, doorways and numerous hostels. Sometimes he sleeps just minutes at a time, sometimes more than 15 hours in a go. His inability to sleep in the marital bed drives Mick out of his home, and yet every thought of returning to work or calling his sons makes him ‘want to shut himself away in his room and go to sleep’. Weeks at a time pass in a haze of alcohol and sleep.
Isolation is another recurring theme. At the start of the novel Mick is isolated either emotionally or geographically from his sons; when he stops answering the phone and opening the mail this isolation grows exponentially. The narrative’s tight focus maintains a sense of the solitude that Mick builds around himself; for many chapters he does not speak to or interact with a single other character outside of his memories and musings. It is the twin combination of crippling tiredness and self-imposed isolation, both textbook signs of depression, that drives Mick into homeless and prevents him escaping once he gets there.
There is plenty more to Waterline than this. Its language, vibrant host of characters and understated humour all make it a worthwhile and rewarding read. Nor is the subject matter entirely bleak; when Mick and Beans make camp by a river, feeding a nesting swan and swapping stories, there is a genuine sense of careless freedom that defies the underlying desperation. But if the novel has a ‘point’ then it is not an indictment of society’s treatment of the vulnerable and homeless but rather a vivid portrayal of the state of mind that forces Mick into that situation in the first place, and wreaks such devastation not just on himself, but on the family and loved ones who cannot comprehend his actions.