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.