Book review: Buddha Da

Glasgow dialect, Buddhist theme make literary novel ‘dead beezer’

Buddha Da Anne Donovan spiritual fiction metaphysical novel new age fictionRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize and Whitbread First Novel Award, “Buddha Da” chronicles the changes in an ordinary Glasgow family when the father decides to become a Buddhist. Anne Donovan’s formidable writing skills make this novel a stunning read.

Story:  Anne Marie’s Da, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, has always been game for a laugh. So when he first takes up meditation at the Buddhist Centre, no one takes him seriously, especially when his pursuit of the new lama ends in a trip round the Carmunnock bypass. But as Jimmy becomes more involved in a search for the spiritual, his beliefs start to come into conflict with the needs of his wife, Liz. Cracks appear in their apparently happy family life, and the ensuing events change the lives of each family member.  (From

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. Jimmy plunges deep into his Buddhist teachings, eventually leaving his middle-class family to live at the temple. He tries to explain his incomprehensible actions to his incredulous family: “Most people think Buddhism’s about meditating, but it’s really about how you live your whole life.” The Buddhist monks employ simple yet effective analogies to walk Jimmy (and the reader) through simple meditation styles.

My take:  One of the charms–and challenges–of Buddha Da is Anne Donovan’s language choice. The story is told entirely in first person by three different family members in their own voices–which means entirely in Glesga dialect and vernacular. This novel forces the non-English reader to slow down and parse each sentence for meaning. The effect is two-fold: You begin to appreciate the rhythms and subtleties of the dialect, and you also decode and internalize more of the spiritual content than you might have with more conventional spiritual literature. For example, this is how Jimmy describes meditation to his daughter:

“Well you sit doon quiet and you try tae empty yer mind, well no exactly empty, mair quiet it doon so aw the thoughts that go fleein aboot in yer heid kinda slow doon and don’t annoy ye.” And during a retreat he is able to settle into a deep altered state: “And it wis like the rain wis alive, know, and everythin in the prayer room seemed tae disappear, ah couldnae hear anybuddy or see anythin; it wis just me and the rain.”

Donovan tackles difficult issues. Is spiritual work selfish? Is it acceptable to hurt the people you love in order to follow your path? What do you owe to the people you leave behind? Buddha Da offers no easy answers, only different perspectives.

Along with language and theme, Donovan’s writing style adds great power to the novel. In addition to the plain language used to vividly illustrate difficult concepts, she employs stark , unvarnished images that cut to the bone. The smell of Liz’ dead mother’s clothes put me square in the middle of my own grandmother’s closet: “Why would somebody smell different because they were auld? … Ah imagined the dry skin flakin aff ma mammy, powderin and workin itself intae the folds of the claes. These claes hangin up here infused wi the skin of ma mammy, mouldering away inside this wardrobe.” Disturbing, but so precisely right.

At heart, Buddha Da is a novel of a family broken and changed by one man’s actions. Donovan writes with uncanny insight about the challenges of parenthood and relationships. The novel is thoroughly enjoyable and a rewarding read; however, I felt let down by the theme: Jimmy’s Buddhist path is not reflected in the conclusion. The family has changed, perhaps irrevocably,  but not by the Buddhist dharma (teachings) that Jimmy experiences. No one learns or grows based on those influences. The novel, while brilliant, feels one calley short of the Berry’s.

Buddha Da, by Anne Donovan
Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2002
Paperback, 330 pages
Buy at Amazon


8 thoughts on “Book review: Buddha Da

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