Friday, 22 February 2013

Farthest North and Farthest South #2: 'It is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone'

I'd intended the next post in my Farthest North and Farthest South series to be about Clare Dudman's novel One Day the Ice Will Reveal all Its Dead, which focuses on the real-life figure of German geologist Alfred Wegener, his Arctic explorations and his formulation of the continental drift hypothesis. Wegener was clearly a fascinating man, but this novel failed to fascinate me, and to be honest, I couldn't think of a thing to write about it. So I turned instead to Amy Sackville's new novel, Orkney; her debut, The Still Point, was probably my favourite new read in 2011 (despite the fact it was up against strong competition from Sarah Hall's The Beautiful Indifference, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Belinda McKeon's Solace) and I was thrilled when I heard she had written a second novel. And it would be unfair to say that Orkney disappoints. True, I don't think it's as good as her debut, but then few books are; what's odd, I suppose, is that this feels slighter, more experimental, a little more overwritten, and so more like a debut, I suppose. But having said that, Orkney deals beautifully and economically with themes that inspire many novelists but which often fail to translate into very good novels, and Sackville deserves kudos for that.

Richard, an eminent professor of English in his sixties, has married one of his students, a captivating, silver-haired girl of twenty-one who has recently graduated and who is never referred to by name. At her request, they are honeymooning on an (also unnamed) island in Orkney, where, far from getting to know his new wife better, Richard finds that she is becoming increasingly strange to him, and increasingly drawn towards water. With this as a linking thread, Orkney tackles retellings and reflections of traditional northern stories about women and men from the sea; the two most prominent models are stories of selkie wives, where a fisherman steals the woman's sealskin so that she will be forced to stay with him on the land, and of the male finfolk, who 'come ashore sometimes, to seek new wives upon the land. And when they've had their fill, away they sail... But... they always come back, to reclaim the little webbed daughters they've fathered on the land'. However, these two stories, told by Richard's unnamed wife, are far from the only models of mermaids and sea-folk referenced in the novel, as Richard's academic interests enable him to name-drop numerous myths; Melusine, Undine, water nymphs and Lamia. He also alludes to Matthew Arnold's 'The Forsaken Merman', which tells the story of a merman who married a human wife; she bore his children and lived with him beneath the sea, but eventually deserted him for the land. Therefore, the disappearance of women into both the earth or the sea is a continuous theme, less about their final destination than the fact of their loss.

Like Susan Fletcher's recent novel, The Silver Dark Sea, Orkney utilises rich, apt, but sometimes over-abundant descriptions of the shore and sea as it plays with the possibility that these old stories are true. We are led to believe that this new wife may actually be a selkie, or a daughter of the finfolk - her unknown father was said to have drowned, and Richard knows little of the rest of her family. Richard himself plays the part of the possessive fisherman perfectly, demonising every man that his wife comes into contact with, wondering how he will cope with a married life where she will have interests outside him, and controlling their collective memory of the relationship. When his wife insists that she was not wearing a purple sweater at their first meeting at one of his seminars, he mentally rewrites this: 'it is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone, while she is in her bath, and not here to interject with her nonsense about not wearing purple.' He objectifies her and makes her animalistic in turn: she is 'a tiny, perfect, whittled trinket found bedded in the sand, a 'sly little pup'; when he comes into the bathroom when she's taking a bath, he enters 'the sweet salt-steam of her lair.' Her shapeless woollen clothing, and his consideration of the 'marmoreal' form underneath them, recalls the selkie stories, and Richard's possessiveness is historical: he remembers childhood trips to the seaside and how he would accumulate 'a shoe-box full of half-eaten sticks of rock, carefully kept for later. Each one with my name struck right through the centre... this sticky log pile growing stickier by the week and finally, alarmingly furred over'.

However, the novel does not try to be a simple retelling of just one of these sea stories, and this is one of its strengths; even at the end, when the wife inevitably disappears, we are left to believe that she may have drowned, rather than reclaiming her selkie heritage and making for the waves. By not trying to line up any given folktale with her story, Sackville lays claim to a richer resonance, and I think this is one of the reasons that Orkney worked better for me than The Silver Dark Sea. Also, Sackville is clearly a stronger writer than Fletcher. To an extent, both the books suffer from similar flaws - they can both feel a little repetitive even as they build atmosphere, as the authors dwell on a remote island landscape, and descriptions can be over-egged - but Sackville's strength of imagery, characterisation, and greater clarity pull her book up to a different level. The main problem with her descriptive writing, I would say, is not that it is flawed in itself but that there is simply too much of it; again and again she pulls out wonderful images, like Richard's imagining of his much-loved, much-abused desk sinking into the sea as he abandons academia: 'drawers lolling open, streaming seaweed as it fell... until it settled on the bottom, redundant, a wrecked ship, coral-crusted, beaded with tiny bubbles.' The occasional raw physicality of her writing steers it away from sentimentality, which Fletcher is too often guilty of when writing about love: when his wife puts on an apron, Richard thinks 'It has a pretty red heart stitched on the chest to protect or conceal the mass of valves and chambers inside.' As the book draws to a close, as well, she makes good use of gaps in the text to show the gradual disintegration of Richard's world, something which can be over-done but I think she handles well.

If there is a single flaw in this novel, it is that it needs an anchor; it can seem to get a little lost in its own heaving seas. Sometimes, it is the wife that plays this role. Richard often simply reports his own speech 'Perhaps in a while, I said' - but hers usually gets speech marks, and provides a refreshing interruption to Richard's increasingly turbulent narrative with gentle humour or basic everyday comments. While Richard obsessively romanticises her, her actions resist this; she can't cook, tries to eat horrible childhood sweets, and tells him 'I'm sorry I didn't stay in the picture' when she moves outside the sight of the window he's been watching her from. She also relates the two long stories about the selkies and finfolk that form the core of a narrative. Ironically, despite her associations with the sea, her presence is grounding, and perhaps this is at the heart of the story after all. Perhaps it is Richard who is the forsaken merman rather than she the hapless selkie; perhaps he has left her for the sea and his ideas of the sea-creature that she is, rather than recognising her as an earthly human woman, and not his to own.

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