Orkney – Amy Sackville

I read Amy Sackville’s first novel The Still Point last year (you can read my review here) and it immediately elevated her to my ‘I’ll read everything they ever publish’ list. Orkney, published in 2013 and winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, was a very different read, but I liked it just as much. In fact, it’s a book I’m probably more likely to re-read, in part because of the sheer beauty of the language.

Once more, this is a book with a love story at its core. This time, the lovers are not separated from the outset. Instead, they’re effectively marooned together on a remote island (in Orkney of course) where ‘she’ was born, and where they have recently arrived to spend their honeymoon at her behest. An unlikely pairing, ageing 19th-century literature professor Richard has married his student, 39 years his junior. White-haired, ethereal and eccentric, wearing her oversized clothes like a cocoon, she is referred to constantly by Richard as either possession (my wife, my young wife) or magical creature but never named. She is the centre of the novel but has no voice – it is Richard’s perspective we assume throughout.

From the outset, the ‘untethered landscape’ of the setting is mirrored in their relationship. Richard is at once paralysed by his love for her and undone by his insecurities. It’s clear that his emotions are bordering on obsession. His focus is repeatedly drawn back to her, whether by her scent, the idea of touching her or his constant desire to know her thoughts. Like the sea, she is changeable and full of unknowable depths. She spends her nights twisting and flailing, tortured by dreams of drowning (she is terrified of the water and will not swim) and her days staring at the ocean.

Much of the language is influenced by folk and fairy tales. There are constant references to such creatures as the Lamia; Ariel; Vivien, Nimue or Niviane – the Lady of the Lake: “She is Protean, a Thetis, a daughter of the sea, a shape-shifting goddess who must be subdued; I hold her fast and she changes, changes in my grasp… But I am no prince and cannot overwhelm her; she will consent to marry but goes on shifting no matter how tight I grip.”

We are of course hearing Richard’s voice and he has brought with him on this trip the book he is currently working  on, ‘the strands of forty years’ thought: enchantment narratives in the nineteenth century. Transformations, obsessions, seductions; succubi and incubi; entrapments and escapes… Curses and cures… And all the attendant uncertainties, anxieties, and aporia.

Much of that quote describes Orkney itself. Richard recognises in his new wife the source of his own enchantment narrative; his learning tells him that these stories rarely end well. Exaggerating his fear is his inability to believe she is really his wife and not a vivid imagining or waking dream. And through it all, the ocean mists outside rise and fall, further blurring the line between reality and myth.

Orkney is a poem of a novel, swimming in utterly gorgeous prose – particularly when describing the natural world – without ever seeming overdone. The ending, for all its prescience, still came as a shock. If you like dark fairy tales and luscious language, you won’t be disappointed.

A Lang a day keeps winter blues at bay

It turns out that there might just be such a thing as karma after all, or at least recent events in my book-buying life suggest so. Having a baby is not a cheap exercise (although we’ve been careful not to fall foul of the buying frenzy that new parents are encouraged into by marketing bods everywhere. Case in point – nappy disposal bins. Surely having a special bin to hermetically seal the nappy in plastic so you don’t have to touch it is rendered null and void when you’re up to your elbows in what you’ve just cleaned off the baby??). Certain savings have had to be made, including the rate at which I acquire books.

With one exception.

Books for the BABY. As Helen from A Gallimaufry suggested in her recent comment there’s no better excuse than a baby if you want to track down and revisit all the childhood classics that you don’t already own (or still have). We’re currently working on our tiny person’s library and I’m absolutely loving it. Plus the universe sent me a wonderful sign that I should keep going – or a reward for being so frugal elsewhere.

For those who don’t know of him, Andrew Lang was a poet, novelist and critic and, from what I’ve read of him, an enlightened and progressive sort of chap. But he’s most famous – ironically, given that he didn’t write them himself – for a collection of fairy tales that he compiled in the late 1800s – early 1900s, known as the Rainbow Fairy Books. Over 12 individually coloured volumes, Lang brought together 437 stories from both English and international folklore, helping many stories to reach a wider audience for the first time and bringing about a revolution in the way that fairytales were perceived by scholars, critics and the general reading public.

BFBAs a great lover of folklore and fairytales, as soon as I heard about Andrew Lang’s collection I realised they HAD to be a part of my daughter’s library. But tracking down copies was not as straightforward. Abe Books will do you the full set of original editions for a mere £9700. Then there were the Folio Society editions. Too beautiful for words and the kind of dream purchase that is still on my ‘if I win the lottery’ wishlist. But at £50 a title, not too practical. And as much as I’d adore them, I don’t want to gift anything to my daughter that I’d be terrified of her touching.

More realistically, I found the Dover Children’s Classics. Originally published in the 60s, these titles are unabridged and also contain copies of the original illustrations. Most titles are available on Amazon for £12-13 but I just found them on Wordery reduced to under £8 each.

I wanted to rush out and buy all of them immediately but – in the spirit of my new thriftiness – I put one of them on a Secret Santa wishlist and decided to pick them up one at a time next year.

Just a few days later, my husband parked the car in town and realised he didn’t have enough change for the metre so he dashed into a nearby Oxfam bookshop to break a note. Thinking he’d pick up a children’s book, he was scanning the shelves when he saw what he was fairly sure were some of the Lang titles I’d been talking about a few days before. He bought one to bring home and check. It was the Dover Children’s Classic edition of the Red Fairy Book. The next day we went back and bought up the rest, at £2.99 each! So now, we have eight of the twelve. And guess what? That didn’t include the one I’d put on my Secret Santa list.

IMG_0173If anyone is a fan of fairytales and hasn’t tried the Lang stories, I’d thoroughly recommend them. Where else could you find ‘The Goat-faced Girl’ or ‘The Death of Koschei the Deathless’ alongside such classics as ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’, ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘The Snow-Queen’. I’ve actually been reading them aloud to my daughter (who mostly sleeps her way through them) and I think that’s the perfect way to experience them. Something about the clean, crisp neatness of well-written fairy stories, combined with the trademark repetition, just lends itself to being spoken aloud. And they’re the most perfect partner for all the twinkling fairy lights covering our living room and an antidote to the winter greyness outside.

Thank you, karma.