Saltire Society first Book of the Year for 2017 has nominated this book for it’s prize. The Caseroom opens in 1891 with 13 year-old Iza Ross starting work at Ballantyne’s Pauls print works in Edinburgh, quickly moving on to 1894 at which point Iza is fully trained as a typesetter or compositor. We learn quickly women doing this work have a different experience to men. “It’s women’s work too” Iza explains, adding, “But lads serve a seven-year apprenticeship; we spend just three years learning.”
The second part of the novel starts in 1910 by which stage Iza is 32. Political debates within Iza’s family and at work are an immediate and consistent part of the narrative and the pressures of disagreements with family, friends and workmates about different political positions clearly spelt out.
In an afterword Hunter explains The Caseroom is “rooted in the author’s family history” and it includes real historical figures. At a young age Iza becomes infatuated with a political activist called Roddy Mac and he introduces her to James Connolly. She is deeply affected by their first meeting and reflects that “the world she’d got a glimpse of in that tiny storeroom was vast”.
The dispute that ends up dominating is complex and at its heart the relationship between men and women workers. Some argue that the recruitment of new women trainees, “learner lassies”, should be suspended for a few years, others that in order to achieve better pay, equal pay for men and women should be fought for. There are debates about how “skilled” and “unskilled” workers should relate to each other. A number of different unions and organisations vie for attention including the We Women’s movement and the new Women’s Compositors, Readers and Monotype Operators Union.
There are some very strong arguments: even early on one of Iza’s brothers Rab “quoted chapter and verse from a journal article on the detrimental effects of print works on women’s fertility. However, it is Connolly who speaks from our political tradition when he argues that “skilled and unskilled — whatever that may mean — have interests in common and a common enemy. No?”
Iza’s family have experience of strike action and the narrative is dotted with references to a printers’ strike in 1872 and its influence casts a long shadow. A particularly charming part is the vignettes Hunter draws of the type setting Iza is engaged in, such as quoting from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Iza is so proud of her involvement in the “27 volumes packed with information and diagrams and maps about everything under the sun”.
Iza is a sympathetic and credible character and narrator and she is central to what makes this an engaging read. Her experiences of love, pregnancy, childbirth, marriage, work, grief, heartbreak and her complex but warm family relations are what drive the story along, in addition to the labour dispute.