IN December of 2013, the Scottish playwright David Greig began a diverting exercise on Twitter which became known as the “Yes/No Plays”, a series of imagined exchanges between a supporter of Scottish independence and his Unionist nemesis/housemate. They were by turns satirical, poignant, bitter, absurdist, occasionally maudlin and often hilarious. Occasionally, Jimmy Reid’s face would appear in the moon.

Perhaps it was the haiku-like brevity of Twitter’s 140-character strictures, or simply Greig’s justly acclaimed talents as a writer, but the “Yes/No Plays” managed to imbue arguments that were becoming repetitive even at the time with a welcome freshness. Doing so, whether in the heat of the referendum or its weird, ongoing aftermath, is not a task that should be underestimated, especially when transposed to the grander scale of a novel.

During the referendum campaign, once it became apparent that Scotland’s artists would generally not remain on the sidelines for the duration, there were a lot of ugly, disingenuous and occasionally disturbing arguments about the role of politics in art.

Those who grumbled that artists should stick to their craft not only refused to acknowledge art’s inherently political nature, but ignored the gruesome legacies of those societies in which artists have been prevented from engaging with politics at all. There is no reason a great novel cannot be written about the independence referendum of 2014. Sadly, Two Closes and a Referendum, Mary McCabe’s expansive tale of families, friends and bystanders caught up in a national question not yet settled, is not that novel.

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It feels obtuse to consider this book alongside other, better works that find their settings in the recent histories of their respective nations, yet it becomes unavoidable. In Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec found whole universes within a Parisian apartment block; in the two Glasgow tenements McCabe explores, little can be found but stale arguments and drab drama. John Dos Passos’s USA turned newspaper headlines into a powerful new mode of narrative; in Two Closes and a Referendum, we get Daily Record opinion polls, which don’t pack quite the same punch.

Even if all comparisons are avoided, McCabe’s novel does no better. This is not a story for anyone who did not live through the events described. Built around the discontents of a nation’s restless and frustrated ambition, it is a fundamentally unambitious book.

Those still inflamed by the passions of 2014 will need no reminders, while others may find that not enough time has elapsed for the paraphernalia of the preceding campaigns to be imbued with any nostalgic novelty; they merely appear at once outdated and tediously familiar.

A reader who remembers #PatronisingBTLady is likely to be thrilled at seeing her brief moment of notoriety recreated, while a reader who does not will either be baffled or bored. Barely a page goes by without a thudding indicator of time and place which, rather than feeding any sense of realism, only serves to make the narrative feel heavy-handed and unconvincing. For a novel billed as a story of “ordinary people in an extraordinary time”, Two Closes and a Referendum fails to capture the extraordinary aspect of the events leading up to the vote, and worse, also fails in a common goal of literature: to find and make evident the affecting and beautiful in the lives of the ordinary. If you forget the politics – a foreboding requirement, for a novel predicated upon political circumstances – then the stories we are left with are rich in potential, but soap opera in execution.

A couple whose ideological differences become unavoidably emotional; immigrants to Scotland who now have a chance to shape it; a mother whose fraught relationship with her teenage daughter is another union under threat.

Framing a novel around such characters might be intended to illuminate the humanity behind political discourse, but the humans in question leave disappointingly little impression.

In the preface to Arts of Independence, their 2014 case for the distinctiveness of Scotland’s cultural and political identity, Alexander Moffat and Alan Riach argued, simply: “Great work is hard work.” Two Closes and the Referendum is clearly the result of writerly toil and deep personal investment, yet despite that, there is no hard work evident here; no artistic goals worthy of McCabe’s efforts, and precious little politics beyond the social media squalls and verbal stairheid rammies that many have tried to transcend in the years since 2014.

Scotland, whether as a nation or a national literature, can do better.

Two Closes and a Referendum by Mary McCabe is published by Ringwood Publishing, priced £9.99