Nineteen-year-old American Ash Harker arrives in Crieff, Perthshire at Christmas, 1984 seeking a man called Jack Duguid, who her recently deceased mother revealed was Ash’s real father. Lonely and grieving, Ash finds companionship in the Cloudland café with the Jasmine Orchestra, a band of similarly lost souls. She befriends Jack and settles into Crieff living, makes friends, even falls in love. For the first time in her life feels like she belongs.
Hanging over her, though, is the secret of her past. She quickly realises that, whatever momma said, Jack is not her father. But who is?
Gradually, her history is unravelled and as the ghosts of the past are evoked their stories leave a lasting impact not only on Ash but on every single member of the Jasmine Orchestra.
Cloudland is a humorous but serious-minded bildungsroman exploring identity and kinship and what it means to belong. It is an exercise in pluralism and an examination of community. In the manner of Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, the novel uses a group of outsiders to cast a light on a society from which they are excluded. This gathering of the disconnected offers an oblique slant on love and suggests a pining desire to belong.
Slant slab of town, red sandstone, clinging, ever climbing. The American girl got off the bus on the High Street. She wore a jacket too thin and carried a rucksack too heavy. There was a smell in the air, acrid against the heavy damp of the atmosphere, like a fire choking on its own smoke. The girl stopped an old woman and asked directions to the library. There, she sat in the reference section and pulled out the telephone directory, checked for the name Jack Duguid and made a note of the address. A librarian in a kilt loaned her a town plan and she copied it into her notebook and marked the route to Jack Duguid’s house.
She stayed in the library until it closed at five o’clock, then gathered her belongings and walked outside. Her breath fogged the air. Hunger scratched her stomach. She swung her rucksack over her shoulder and walked downhill, past the Meadows and the bridge over the railway cutting until she came to a little row of houses at the end of Broich Road. Beneath the streetlight she checked her map and looked at Jack Duguid’s house. There was a precarious gate and a narrow path and a dark doorway. She stood outside and shivered. Inside, nothing moved. She watched for half an hour until darkness fell like a rebuke, then turned and retraced her steps. Behind her, in the split-the-winds between King Street and Burrell Street, was a patch of green and, at the rear, nicely darkened, a wooden shelter. Ash Harker installed herself in her new refuge and watched fog swirling beneath the street lights and ice crystals forming on the pavement and waited.
In this manner night turned. Crieff, last Friday before Christmas, 1984. A north wind blew itself towards the Ochils, trailing frost and snow. The town clung to the Knock hill, straggling from Ferntower to Dallerie, the Laggan to Braidhaugh. Here, five thousand souls slept. Street lights cast shadows over doorways unemployed until morning. A police car passed the shelter three times but didn’t see the troubled watcher within. A sheen of ice covered pavements and empty roads. Night, time of dreams, unfolded itself. Ash began to shiver, her fingers sore, feet numb. This was her second night on the streets but the first in Scotland, following her arrival in Edinburgh that morning, stowed away on a train from King’s Cross. It was much colder here, the cold much denser. Silence hung black as a blanket. The hours cycled and Ash counted each on its way. The dead sat with her.