It is nearly impossible to find a good cover image for this novel. This is the best I could get:
Summary: We see the lives and petty rivalries of the inhabitants of Barbie, a fictional 19th century rural Scottish town. The novel centers around John Gourlay, a dull, tyrannical, proud man who lives apart from the town. He has a monopoly on the carrying of goods in and out of Barbie, and regards its inhabitants with scorn. The townspeople of Barbie are terrified of him, but lash out through malicious gossip and passive-aggressive slights. We see the slow crumbling of Gourlay's power as the novel progresses: a man named Wilson challenges his unspoken ownership of the town, a railroad comes in, his weak-minded and daydreaming son becomes an alcoholic at university, etc. The end result is one of textbook Greek tragedy: unable to adjust or adapt, led down dangerous paths by his pride, Gourlay and his whole family meet their gruesome and inevitable ends.
Review: I read this book in one day, and by the time the sun was setting, a little part of my brain had gone utterly insane - but in the best of possible ways.
Most of the criticism and commentary on this book that is out there focuses on how different it is from the 'kailyard' stories that were so popular at the time it was written. Kailyard stories were soppy soap operas set in rural Scotland that tended to portray the people's lack of education as endearing, making them a simple, happy, generous people. They took in strangers and fed them bread and milk. They went to church and fell in love and had lots of fat happy babies. You get the idea. As my professor so aptly put it, "it was all very Little House on the Prairie".
It is true that the world Brown conjures is the polar opposite. Ignorance makes the people of Barbie mean and hopeless. Materialism, petty jealousy, and hate are the driving traits for the majority of characters. It is a town of despots and drunkards, hypocrits and self-made martyrs, idiots and cruel children. Brown's view of the human race in this novel is very, very bleak.
The reason why this bleakness doesn't become too stifling is the prose. It is incandescent. I cannot think of any other word to describe it. There's not much more to say. You will see in the Quotation section, by example, what I mean.
Brown does a very good job in making the reader hate and look down on every single character. This is harder than it sounds - one is naturally disposed to be sympathetic to the abused wife, or the terrorized son. Brown lets us enjoy that pity, and then makes us despise them. The ending, as well, rather tickled me. It was "Macbeth" meets "Romeo & Juliet" meets "Antigone". Once the Gourlays start to circle the drain, it's fun in a sick way to watch them go.
I know that this is a book that a lot of people outside of Scotland haven't heard of - thus why it was so hard to find a cover online. I would HIGHLY recommend it, if you can get your hands on a copy.
Quotations: "Yet his whole being...was surcharged with the feeling that the fine buildings around him were his, that he had won them by his own effort and built them large and significant before the world."
"They went to the window. The fronting heavens were a black purple. The thunder, which had been growling in the distance, swept forward and roared above the town. The crash no longer rolled afar, but cracked close to the ear, hard, crepitant. Quick lightning stabbed the world in vicious and repeated hate. The rain came - a few drops at first, sullen, as it loth to come, that splashed on the pavement wide as a crown-piece - then a white rush of slanting spears."
"There is nothing worse for a weakling than a small success. The strong man tosses it beneath his feet, as a step to rise higher on. He squeezes it into its proper place as a layer in the life he is building."
"The brake swung on through merry cornfields where reapers were at work, past happy brooks flashing to the sun, through the solemn hush of ancient and mysterious woods, beneath the great white-moving clouds and blue spaces of the sky. And amid the suave enveloping greatness of the world, the human pismires stung each other and were cruel, and full of hate and malice and a petty rage."
"With little power of thought, he had a vast power of observation; and as everything he observed in Edinburgh was offensive and depressing, he was constantly depressed - the more because he could not understand."