Norman Bissell
Luath Press, £12.99
Review by Alastair Mabbott

IT must have been disheartening for Norman Bissell, typing away on the Isle of Luing, to discover that an Australian author, Dennis Glover, was bringing out a book with an almost identical premise to his own: a novel based on the last few years of George Orwell’s life, culminating in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four at the farmhouse of Barnhill on Jura. Obviously, the two books share much common ground, with several incidents being depicted in both (Bissell’s version of the overturning boat at Corryvreckan, for instance, being by far the more dramatic), but they complement each other, and both have their merits.

Glover goes back further into Orwell’s past, including the action he saw in the Spanish Civil War, and is more concerned with the genesis of Nineteen Eighty-Four, while Bissell fills out and explores more deeply Orwell’s character and his relationships with those around him. It’s a very believable portrayal, digging beneath the surface of a man who could be awkward, opinionated and intransigent in an attempt to see what made him tick.

His problematic love life is a major thread, and entire chapters are given over to the recollections of Sonia Brownell, who married Orwell shortly before his death, as she might have recounted them in 1980. Bissell writes a scene in which Orwell returns home to his first wife Eileen from a tryst with Tribune colleague Sally McEwen, when he “dropped his drawers and carefully washed his privates with carbolic soap”, a line bleak enough for Nineteen Eighty-Four itself. After Eileen dies during what should have been a routine operation, he clumsily pursues several women, lunging without warning or proposing at the drop of a hat, desperate to fill the gap left by his wife’s death.

But what Bissell takes the greatest care to affirm are Orwell’s devotion to his adopted son Ricky and his sense of himself as a country boy at heart. The writer is never happier than when planting vegetables and cutting peat on Jura, even at some risk to his health. He feels that Barnhill will give Ricky the healthy outdoor upbringing he had enjoyed and to which he yearned to return. Bissell also evokes the suspicion and treachery of the Cold War persuasively enough for Orwell’s habit of sleeping with a gun at his side to seem less a symptom of paranoia than a reasonable precaution.

Bissell concocts a memorable segment in which a stranded Orwell spends Hogmanay in Glasgow, an experience which thaws his Eton-bred snobbery towards the locals. It reads awfully like the kind of response the author would like Orwell to have had, rather than one based on any writings he left behind. But it’s a good set-piece all the same, and justifies its length. Sometimes, Bissell’s signposting is distractingly obvious (“But are you saying they act like a kind of thought police?”), but Orwell musing, after finding out that he had been quoted by both Goebbels and Churchill, that “perhaps he should invent some more phrases” is a knowing and funny enough line to make up for it.