‘Take me north’ Orkney – Amy Sackville


 She was my most gifted student, and now she is my wife.

‘Take me north’, she says, to Orkney and the sea. The sixty-year old academic and his elfin twenty-something wife, the professor and his student, travelling to the hyperborean, timeless archipelago: ‘Where the waves rush in iron-grey and unforgiving, like the cavalry of old wars.’  Once on their island they occupy a cottage above the beach, from which she can emerge each day to contemplate the sea, before her dreams are filled with grasping waves and drowning. The Professor watches her from a window, framed against sea, beach, and sky:  ‘Just as she is – luminous, obscure. There she stands.’ He is writing ‘a book of enchantment’, of strange, terrible, otherworldly, doomed women; of myth and poetry, of dreaming and folk-tales; of Keats, Tennyson, and Coleridge, Lamia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, The Lady of Shalott, Vivien, Melusine, Undine, and the folk of the ocean. Sackville has written her own rich and rhythmic book of enchantment, a book possessed and of possession, sharing themes with A.S. Byatt, although stylistically the novelists are worlds apart.

I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful—a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.

(La Belle Dame Sans Merci)

This silver-haired, wild-eyed girl is running from the ‘unhaunted place’ of her childhood to an island freighted with myth, to the island of her father, a mysterious presence throughout, about whom the Professor can learn little other than that he left when she was very young, claimed, perhaps by the sea. Throughout this sea is clasping, grasping, sucking, in her dreams and when she finally enters the water, having conquered her fear in a macabre fashion. Those poems of enchantment, disappearance, a prefigured and figurative death, threaten dissolution in the hungry sea. Permeating the consciousness of Sackville’s characters is the Nineteenth Century femme fatale inherited from the Greeks and transformed by the tales of Selkie and Finmen, emerging from the cold sea to seduce and to claim their children, webbed toes and all.

‘O did you never lie upon the shore,

And watch the curl’d white of the coming wave

Glass’d in the slippery sand before it breaks?’

(Merlin, ‘Vivien’, Idylls of the King)

Sackville’s writing approaches prose-poetry as her sentences flow on through semi-colons, commas, and dashes: receding and returning, becoming stormy, languid, open and claustrophobic as the mood shifts with the sea, with a young woman’s yearning, and her husband’s imagination, incomprehension, impatience, and jealousy.

And then all at once, a crack appeared in the cloud, a sun at one corner of it like a god’s eye, casting a piercing lancet against the sky; and then one after another, rods of silver broke through to announce his presence. Like some awful ruthless salvation, the sun burned the edge of the cloud-bank magnesium white, and shone brilliant on the still-tended, cleansed world; the rock pools transformed into blinding mirrors and the sea, so lately needled to fury, was lulled and banded with whispering silver as it approached the shore, and there was the terrible argent fire of the cloud’s lining after the storm; and ‘Let’s go out!’ she said. ‘In the sunshine…’ As if extinction had not threatened only an hour before.

The language is that of the Professor, immersed in poetry, in the near-heraldic and mythic tone of Keats, perhaps more Tennyson: the argent and the lancet. It is this immersion in poetry and stories which he fears drew his wife to him: ‘Would you love me at all if it weren’t for poetry, for stories? Do you take it so lightly to be my wife?’ he thinks. The suspension of time in those myths matches the hyperborean setting of their honeymoon. Their disparate ages mean their time together is intensified by its necessary brevity: a fact the Professor considers constantly, is threatened by. He becomes jealous of the years he will miss. Yet as the poetry is stripped away, the tone becomes harsher, laden with a less Arcadian fear.

Behind Orkney lies the luminous poetry of the Orcadian George Mackay Brown, whose retirement age love for the young Kenna Crawford presages the Professor’s.  One of Sackville’s two epigraphs is a passage from a poem for Kenna, ‘Gossip in Hamnavoe: About a Girl’,

‘O, she’ll be back. That dear one

Is gold of our corn,

She’s Orkney rain and spindrift…’

Apart from the clear allusion to the island father, perhaps Sackville is suggesting that the relationship she explores in Orkney should have remained like that of Brown and Crawford: close, deep, a meeting rather than the ‘marriage of minds’ upon which the Professor insists at every false paternal turn.

‘Now she has found a way

From Edinburgh, back to the hills and seas

Of her people, and discovered

Seals on the shore, waiting …’

                (Kenna’s Return to Orkney)

The culminating passage also features a passage of Brown writing about Crawford: they hover ghost-like behind Sackville’s writing, emerging every now and again, as the doomed lovers and otherworldly women of the Professor’s work intrude upon his thought and conversation with his wife. Brown’s love of Kenna generated poetry, the Professors immersion appropriates it. That contrast suggests the final sadness may be the departure of poetry after eleven days in Orkney.

Sackville’s other epigraph is a quotation from Hélène Cixous: ‘…the portrait of a story attacked from all sides, that attacks itself and in the end gets away.’ As the island is battered by storm Orkney is subjected to attacks from myth, dream, poetry, memory, and desire, and ultimately dissolves into the breaking wave of the Professor’s fears. The loss of a mediating language and the death of his ‘undergraduate ardor’ leave the Professor speechless and ‘palely loitering’.

We have been telling each other the tale of our great romance, as I suppose all newlyweds do; refining the details, spinning it out, combing and weaving the threads of it.

The novelist and psychologist Charles Fernyhough has written of the working out of joint memories in relationships; how we author a shared narrative, part of the foundation and fabric of a marriage; and one of the first things to unravel when a relationship begins to falter, to hit the rocks. Their stories do not knit, the Professor impatient with ‘her nonsense about not wearing purple’ and who really kissed who first. ‘Real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass/Their pleasures in a long immortal dream.’ (Lamia) The Professor is no god. Perhaps, it was never real – his voice quavers, quivers through the pages.  A lowering threat hovers behind every word and every wave. Brown knew this. Our Professor knew, but hoped.

Amy Sackville has written a rich and remarkable book, whose language and structure mirror the minds and surroundings of her central characters. It is a book about the enchantment of romance, the rhythms of marriage, and the tissues of language behind which lies either the substance of a shared life, or an empty space failed by Romance.

To have carved on the days of our vanity

A sun

A ship

A star

A cornstalk

Also a few marks

From an ancient forgotten time

A child may read

That not far from the stone

A well

Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets –

Carve the runes

Then be content with silence.

(A Work For Poets – George Mackay Brown)

Orkney is out today (7/2/13) from Granta.

My thanks to Granta for this review copy.

Best of 2012: My These Little Words Guest Post

Copious notes

These Little Words has posted my selection of a few of my favourite books of 2012. I’ve enjoyed an awful lot of books this year, so this list is by no means exhaustive.

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

How Denis Johnson does what he does is beyond me. Train Dreams is a 116 page long masterpiece of remarkable richness that documents the harsh and tragic life of Robert Grainier amidst the disorientating transformation of the American West he helped tame as a bridge builder and logger for the railways. As is so often the way with Johnson, the weight behind each sentence is remarkable, even as each line appears innocuous; and this brooding power underlines the most human of experiences whilst allowing the passages where the visionary breaks through to take one’s breath away: the final passage is simply stunning and echoes back through the pages.

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt of the life of a Chinese laborer caught or anyway accused of, stealing from the stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Train Dreams opens with a founding event, the attempted murder of an immigrant worker by a gang of bridge workers, Grainier amongst them, their chosen method being to fling the man from the top of a half-constructed span. The curse Grainier believes the Chinese labourer to have put on him hangs above his head for the rest of the book, as his wife and young child are killed in a voracious wildfire, and he sets out to reconstruct his life in a lonely cabin.

In the dark he felt his daughter’s eyes turned on him like a cornered brute’s. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck.

What I found most striking was the manner in which the apparently human – the rational, organised, powerful – was laid over the wild, the animal, and the deadly, rather than supplanting it. Few characters die naturally in Train Dreams and Grainier’s life spans that moment when the West still resisted the progress of a humanity Johnson questions: for it’s not only the landscape which is only apparently humanised through the arrival of the railways, but humans themselves. The interpenetration of the domestic and the wild, and the caprice of the apparently domesticated, is symbolised by the small red dog Grainier shares his cabin with, and who frequently disappears to run with the wolves.

This contrast between the rational and the animal which together make up the human and the world we attempt to separate ourselves from is underlined by Johnson’s measured prose. Prose with the power to suddenly break out into a fleet-footed wildness which lurks beneath every sentence. Train Dreams is as much about the loss of that moment as it is its analysis. The railroad frames Grainier’s life and enters his dreams, inflecting their childhood recollections, but something clings on beneath them.

Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection Battleborn also investigates the myth of the American West in its own way and shares the alternating tenderness and harshness of landscape and the kind of person one has to be to survive in it. Neither book allows the romantic to creep in, but that is not, of course, the same thing as excluding sentiment, of which there is plenty in both. Where Johnson excels in is the seemingly effortless and astonishingly compressed richness of this short novel.To be honest, I don’t know what else to say about Train Dreams other than that you should read it.

Train Dreams is released on 6th September by Granta.

My thanks to Granta for providing this review copy.

Book Plans

So, this pretty poorly photographed pile of books represents my reading plan for the next few weeks and months. I’ve already started Parade’s End and will be reviewing each of the four novels separately before summing up at the end. The Garden of Evening Mists and Narcopolis are the last of the Booker Longlist books which I have. I’m as yet undecided as to whether I will buy the remaining four novels to round out my Booker Series. The White Goddess, Alif the Unseen, NW, and The Yellow Birds all come out around the end of August and the beginning of September, so those are fairly high up the list as well. As is Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? and The Forbidden Kingdom from Salt and Pushkin Press respectively. I’m also continuing my reading of the Penguin English Library so as to bolster my woeful acquaintance with ‘classic’ literature – whatever that means. The mammoth The Children’s Hospital, which was released a few years ago in the US, looks very interesting (as well as having a great cover). Finally, My Life in France by Julia Child should make me both pretty hungry and yearn to wander some Left Bank book-haunted alley-ways in a dependably clichéd manner.

Battleborn – Claire Vaye Watkins

I’m pretty busy at the moment, but I wanted to post a quick review of the excellent Battleborn which came out this week in the UK.

Claire Vaye Watkins is one of those writers whose own history threatens to overshadow their writing: which would be a shame, because her short story collection is marvellous. Her father was intimately involved with Charles Manson’s ‘family’ before aiding the prosecution in Manson’s trial for murder; and her mother was a depressed alcoholic who died of an overdose in 2007 two months before Watkins graduated from college. Against the background of such a family history, it is unsurprising that Watkins has produced a collection of stories so concerned with relationships, their tensions and failures, mostly set against the hard landscape of her home state of Nevada whose nickname is ‘Battle Born’ because it achieved statehood during the Civil War. That birth in a time of violence and fear underpins the whole collection, whose hot and scouring prose reveals an unexpected softness and tempered resilience in the struggling occupants of each story.

‘The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.’

This first line of the first story Ghosts, Cowboys announces the haunting of many characters in Battleborn. This story interrogates Watkins’ own history, her own attempts to understand the context of her birth, and where one should even begin looking: the birth of the state, the occupation of a plot of land, or the arrival of a group of young people at the ranch in 1968. How much we can gain from this probing of the past is questioned by Watkins,

‘Everything I can say about what it means to lose, what it means to do without, the inadequate weight of the past, you already know.’

Intertwined with the personal is the West, the landscape shot through with veins of silver and death and memory. In Man-O-War a lonely old man finds a pregnant girl out in the fierce heat of the desert and comes to believe she could be a substitute for the wife who left him and the child they never had. The ease with which tenderness gives way to violence in the face of the frustrations of impersonal landscape runs throughout Battleborn. This is brought home strikingly in the excellent The Diggings which subjects two Forty-Niners to the heartless and grinding reality of the gold rush and the ‘lump fever’ which overtakes the narrator’s brother. (If nothing else, introducing me to the word ‘ripsniptiousness’ would be a virtue of this story.) He might be speaking for the whole collection when says,

‘Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have even been since.’

At no point does Watkins give her characters any quarter. There are no fairytale endings for the Italian boy who stumbles into a brothel and instantly destabilises its structure in The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past; nor do the memories of the degrading trip to Las Vegas the female character forced her vulnerable friend into ease with time in Rondine al Nido. Dysfunctional relationships, missing or effectively absent parents, and the challenges of parenthood stand starkly against the heat and memory of the landscape. You can’t dissemble in the desert, it doesn’t allow it; and nor does Watkins, whose voice emerges powerfully from these stories, as does the fierce character of Nevada. The strengths and failings of a rugged individualism are subjected to the cutting edge of an uncompromising style. It’s a very good collection and I’ll be keen to see what comes next: whether Watkins will further dissect her home state and their shared history, or chooses to move outward. Either possibility promises much.

Review: ‘Hawthorn and Child’ by Keith Ridgway

—We are not at the centre of things, said Child.

So speaks one of the detectives whose names adorn the cover of Keith Ridgway’s simply stunning novel. I resist calling them central characters, or suggesting that the book is about detectives Hawthorn and Child, because such a reduction would so mischaracterise what Ridgway has done here. The book begins with a dream, and that quality persists throughout: shifting, partial, moments elided, the constellation of images slightly brighter than is comfortable, pin-sharp, but whisked away, blurring as they recede, as liquid as the forms which so occupy Ridgway. Figures with curious names – Mishazzo, Gull, Hawthorn, Child – emerge from the dream of North London and occupy the eight linked stories, fill them with uncertainty, fear, flesh, sex, paranoia, and death. The writing is merciless and the effect hypnotic.

 Time stretches but it never breaks. It never breaks.

The place of each story within any overarching narrative is unclear, irresolvable on the basis of the incomplete information we are given. Ridgway begins with an apparent attempted murder to which Hawthorn and Child have been assigned, but this is anything but a crime novel. There is no sequence of investigation and the crime quickly fades into the background for the fractured occupants of a refractory North London.  Indeed, the structural impression is of an eternal present, naturally opposed to narrative and explanation, whilst the experience of each character is a composite of fear, memory, suspicion, lust, and confusion. The broken experience of the apparently sane fails to comfortably contrast with that of the more uncontrolled and violent occupants of Hawthorn and Child in stories like ‘Marching Songs’ and ‘The Association of Christ Sejunct’. Only they are aware of the cracks, only they feel the need to state what we all seem to unquestioningly believe:

 I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.

There is nothing solid in this collection of unreliable and dissonant voices, except perhaps a certain sentiment: the yearning for connection bound to the uncertainty of our understanding of the opaque minds of others. The stories ‘Goo Book’ and ‘Rothko Eggs’explore this sense very effectively in their different ways. Each is intensely affecting, marking out Ridgway as capable of calm, controlled and sympathetic prose, which serves only to heighten the tension that holds the whole book together in such vibrating and paradoxical unity.

Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.

This from a literary agent in ‘How We Ran the Night’ – perhaps the strangest story which, in this novel, is quite something. Psychological and narrative explanation is held up here not simply as impossible, but as wrong-headed. The constructions we impose on those around us support our world, but the world does not support them. That world seems diseased, and Ridgway’s writing oozes this illness across the page in febrile sentences:

 The poisoned evening spun a little. The sky was pink and the buildings black and the lights looked wet in the warmth, and people trickled out of the tube station like beads of sweat.

Here flesh and sky merge in a manner typical of the whole work. Experience is organic and as prone to infection as the matter from which it is so often separated in literature. Indeed, one character suffers from just such an infection even as his mind is overcome with paranoid delusions about Tony Blair. Violence and horror pervade Hawthorn and Child.

 On the Internet, you can watch people dying, all over the place. This is new isn’t it? This is a new thing in the world.

Real or imagined, there is an odd seduction in mutilated flesh and mental anguish, which can reach a quite extraordinary pitch in its conjunction with the commonplaces of everyday life, culminating in a horror I will leave you to discover for yourself. That horror is delivered with consummate skill and control, in a manner which is hard to communicate in a review. Ridgway’s achievement in this book is quite remarkable in its imaginative breadth and literary depth. I’m not sure that I have read anything like it. As Hawthorn and Child struggle to understand and act in the world around them, to resolve persons and events, one thing comes to the fore more strongly than anything else,

 We’re all mostly bullshit.

Amazon: Hawthorn and Child

Or go to your local bookshop!