Jim Francis has finally found the perfect life – and is now unrecognisable, even to himself. A successful painter and sculptor, he lives quietly with his wife, Melanie, and their two young daughters, in an affluent beach town in California. Some say he’s a fake and a con man, while others see him as a genuine visionary. But Francis has a very dark past, with another identity and a very different set of values. When he crosses the Atlantic to his native Scotland, for the funeral of a murdered son he barely knew, his old Edinburgh community expects him to take bloody revenge. But as he confronts his previous life, all those friends and enemies – and, most alarmingly, his former self – Francis seems to have other ideas. When Melanie discovers something gruesome in California, which indicates that her husband’s violent past might also be his psychotic present, things start to go very bad, very quickly.
The first time I read The Blade Artist I struggled to get into it, despite being a huge fan of the work of Irvine Welsh. The reason for this is simple: as compelling a character as Jim Francis is, I found it hard to reconcile this against the character of Frank Begbie. The difference was just too great. I didn’t believe the man who savaged a paedophile in a prison assault in Skagboys, could transform into a committed family man living with a beautiful young family in California. After three novels being built up as a psychopath, I simply couldn’t buy into this reformed Jim Francis.
But in many ways this is the exact point of the novel. On his return to Leith, none of his friends and family truly believe in his reformation. They all see him as Begbie, the psychopath he once was. They await the inevitable explosion of violence that he will perform to avenge his son. The text therefore explores how our own identity is perhaps defined by our social reputations and what people expect of us. Because Jim Francis does succumb, he adopts the role of Begbie once more, and the novel ends in an incredibly violent fashion (seriously, this is not a book for the faint of heart). Does this mean that Jim/Begbie never really changed? Or did he ultimately conform to his existing reputation and commit the actions everyone expected of him back in Leith?
Whilst not a genuine masterpiece like some of his other work – Trainspotting and Skagboys – Welsh has written a very rich text in The Blade Artist. The readers initial scepticism about the direction this well known (and dare I say, well loved?) character has taken, gives way to a meta-textual comment on how our culture defines the individual at a social level. In his work, Irvine Welsh explores the theme of what it is to be masculine in modern Britain, and the social expectations associated with this form of hyper-masculinity (namely extreme violence). Perhaps Begbie had the capacity to change – he may have even deserved his perfect idyllic life in America – but due to the expectations of both the reader and the other characters, he is never allowed to escape his brutal past.
It is human kind to believe that if things got bad we could always run away and reinvent ourselves in a new place. But with The Blade Artist, Welsh shows what happens when this “new you” returns back to that darker realm. Ultimately the reader is forced to question whether you can ever truly escape your past in a postmodern world where both personal and gendered identity are defined on a social, performative level.