Mick Flynn’s wife Cathy has died of cancer. To compound his already acute grief, he feels guilt over her passing. He knows now that during his many years as a shipbuilder on the Clyde, he was inadvertently exposing them both to asbestos and that this conceivably contributed to Cathy’s death. His grief is punctured with dreams of her, including one of her shaking a doormat, ‘a cloud of white dust puffing out with each clout’. It is this guilt-ridden grief, painfully and viscerally observed by Ross Raisin, that sends Mick spiraling. Left alone after the funeral, he soon stops washing, working, eating or even living inside the house, choosing instead to exist in the garden shed. A normal existence has become impossible because ‘She is ordinary life’. Without her, it ceases to exist. Raisin’s evident sympathy for Mick never seems affected, and by using real detail about asbestos poisoning he gives his narrative a poignancy and a social reality that raises its own important questions about culpability.
Unable to assuage his guilt or to face his family, Mick suddenly flees Glasgow for London, working briefly in a grim hotel near Heathrow before finally finding himself unemployed again, as well as homeless. What Raisin manages to express well is the sense that hitting rock bottom in this manner provides its own sense of relief; by needing to focus on the day-to-day concerns of where to sleep, how to stay warm and where the next meal will come from, Mick is able to almost relinquish the constant need to remember. Indeed, once Mick does arrive in London, there is a palpable absence of thoughts about Cathy. This absence is one of the strongest effects of the novel.
We eventually follow Mick to an ending that seems brighter and neater than arguably fits with his journey up to that point. Another slight weakness of the novel is when Raisin draws back from Mick’s perspective and inserts short observations written from the point of view of strangers encountering Mick on the street. It is not that these vignettes are entirely unwelcome but they tend to jar slightly with the rest of the narrative and as they are so few and far between, it causes a slight narrative imbalance. Nonetheless, snatches of Waterline stayed with me for days afterwards and it is entirely to Raisin’s credit that Mick’s story carries such power, far beyond the last page.