Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Off the edge of the map

This impressive debut novel about islands, keys, embroidery, women and the sea takes inspiration from two very different fairytale traditions, personified in its two narrators. Mary has lived her life on an isolated island that bears more than a passing resemblance to St Kilda, despite the talk of the bewitched 'Thrashing House' where those who transgress the rules of this matriarchal community are sent, and ideas about enchanted, poisonous snake ropes left by the 'tall men' who come to trade for handicrafts and fish. Her references are those of Norse or Celtic folklore; harsh and unreasoning, and consistently peculiar. Morgan, confined to a house on the same island after her family fled from the mainland, inhabits a fairer (in both senses of the word) world of the Brothers Grimm or Perrault's tales, where virtue is rewarded and things come in threes, and retains this same expectation herself as she hopes for escape. Her twin sisters, meanwhile, are straight out of Hans Christian Anderson. Among this jumble of storytelling traditions, Jess Richards has fashioned something striking and fresh; she is certainly a writer to watch.

There are faults to this novel. Richards' command of pace at the beginning of Mary's story, as she searches for her kidnapped brother, Barney, and uncovers family secrets, only makes it more obvious when this novel sags somewhat in the middle. It takes a little too long for Mary and Morgan to meet, as they inevitably must, but after they do, the narrative picks up again. I loved Mary's voice, which took me a few pages to read easily, but after that, added to the strength and depth of her character. However, at the weakest points, I felt that Richards was creating a mishmash of ideas just because she could. This can be exhilarating, but also a little shallow, as when Morgan muses, 'I'm not hungry for an oven-baked witch, I'm not laughing at an empress who wears the skin of her fattened emperor as her brand new clothes... I'm so tired, but I don't want to sleep for decades to give anyone a kiss they've wanted for only a moment'. I also wanted the world of the island to be more sufficiently fleshed out, although I appreciate that was probably not Richards' intention. The narrative is continuously and deliberately disorientating, as when Mary listens to voices in metal and Morgan drinks forgetting liquid, and this creates an incredible sense of atmosphere, but I wanted to feel a little more grounded in the rhythms of daily life in this world; the traditions of the Thrashing House and how the women govern this community. This is a book I could admire, but not fully inhabit, and hence, I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have done.

Nevertheless, Richards has set herself a formidable challenge with this novel, and on the whole, she rises to it. I'm looking forward to whatever she writes next.

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