Book Review: Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes

July 11, 2020

4th Estate | Publication date: 23 July 2020

Scabby Queen is an expansive, distinctly Scottish, political novel which skilfully shifts through time, perspectives and landscapes (including the Scottish Highlands, Glasgow and London) and covers issues of race, class, sexism, mental health and recent political events including the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit. Providing narrative thread is our complex protagonist: once-famous musician and political activist Clio Campbell.

The novel’s namesake is a card game in which cards are paired off and passed around until the person left holding the Queen of Spades or the ‘Scabby Queen’ is deemed the loser. Similarly, Clio is passed around from narrator to narrator, as author Kirstin Innes builds up a picture of Clio’s life through the perspectives of some of Clio’s close and not-so-close acquaintances. We never hear from Clio herself, and the portrait we get is complicated by the fact that each narrator has a different interpretation of her. Some narrators think of Clio as strong, influential, and selfless, whilst others portray her as chaotic, mentally unstable, and manipulative. This oscillation between Clio’s strength and vulnerability, and an awareness that each narrator centres their own interests, issues and biases and may therefore be unreliable, means that the reader is never able to make a conclusive judgement about Clio. These narrative devices create an interesting reading experience.

There are intriguing subplots: Clio’s time spent living in a squat with an undercover cop (unbeknownst until years later); the breakdown of her relationship with her mother; her short-lived marriage and miscarriages. Each subplot is disclosed to us in pieces as the narration moves back and forth through time as well as perspective. This shifting approach might sound overwhelming but Innes executes it well.

Clio’s life is rooted in activism and she takes up various different causes which cause rifts in her friendships throughout the years, as her friends turn away from the activist life in order to settle down, have families or find inner peace. The tension between political activism and individual need is highly relevant. None of the characters seem to have struck the right balance and the novel raises questions about who has the privilege to opt-out of the fight.

The novel touches on some key political questions but it’s characterisation and storytelling techniques were more impactful for me than the politics. I enjoyed the complexity of the shifting perspectives and the fact that we didn’t hear from the protagonist, and the novel is impressively far-reaching.

One final thought; it was only thanks to having a Scottish partner that I knew most of the Scottish slang. If you’re not familiar with Scottish vernacular, keep Google at hand when reading Scabby Queen.


Thank you to 4th Estate, William Collins and Netgalley for the ARC.

You can pre-order Scabby Queen here

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