Reviews: What You Call Free

James Robertson, poet, short story writer and author of novels including And The Land Lay Still and Joseph Knight.

In this wonderful debut novel, Flora Johnston prises open a forgotten window to give a rare view onto the lives of women in one of the darkest periods in Scotland’s history.

A sullen atmosphere of unrelentingly wintry weather and impending personal disaster looms over What You Call Free, which is set mainly in the lee of the Pentland Hills and Edinburgh in 1687-8, a time when Scotland was riven by religious and political differences. The two principal characters, Helen Alexander and Jonet Gothskirk, were real women, but little is known of the detail of their lives, and the novel’s triumph is to make them whole in flesh and blood. They could have remained passive victims of the times in which they existed, but Flora Johnston’s acute and sensitive writing reveals their intelligence and courage as they face hypocrisy and cruelty masquerading as righteousness and honour. Yet Helen and Jonet are not saints but whole human beings, full of faith, doubt, hope and fear, and so are the sisters, mothers, daughters, husbands, brothers and suitors who surround them.

The story also features a remarkable portrait of James Renwick, the last of the Covenanter martyrs, whose arrest and trial lead to the novel’s stunning climax. What You Call Free is historical fiction of the highest quality.

Cynthia Rogerson, short story writer and author of novels including Wait for me, Jack and I Love You, Goodbye.

Flora Johnston has written a literary page turner about one of Scotland’s most turbulent and least talked about periods. It opens in 1687, the time of the Covenant. There are those, like Helen – principled widow with three young children – who bravely offer shelter to religious refugees, whose only crime might be worshipping in a field instead of a Kirk.  And there are those like Jonet – pregnant unmarried teenager – who wear the sackcloth every Sunday in the Kirk, and suffer the scourge of a community for the sin of falling for a scoundrel.

The novel follows these two women in alternating chapters, their fates interwoven in a tight-paced progression through perilous adventures.  Johnston has created a highly convincing narrative not just of an historic time in Scotland, but of specific individuals with all their quirks and weaknesses and unexpected flashes of both inspiration and despair.  Jonet and Helen are memorable, not because they are perfect heroines with just causes, but because they are utterly recognisable as people.  It’s a bleak story because it’s a bleak time, but the characters retain their warmth and humanity.

All in all, a compulsive read.  As addictive as chocolate, and as nourishing as a bowl of Scotch broth.   

Jenni Calder, literary historian, poet, novelist and author of numerous titles

Flora Johnston has created a gripping narrative with engaging, often conflicted characters, and evokes time and place with great skill. She tells a powerful story, steering a sure-footed path through perhaps the most complex and divided period in Scotland’s history in a way that resonates with many issues today.