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.

Imogen Hermes Gowar – The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Sometimes when I’m reading historical fiction, I’m blown away by the amount of detail you’d have to research to write even one convincing sentence. Let’s say someone walks across a room and sits down. What room is it? Would a house like this have that kind of a room? Would they even go into this room at that time of day? What’s in the room? Is it appropriate to their station in life? What are they wearing? Could they afford it? How does it move? Does the fabric make a sound? What do they sit on? How do they sit? etc. etc. until I feel like I could do with a lie down.

All of which makes a really good historical novel a very impressive achievement indeed. I can’t verify the detail in Gowar’s book but it vibrates with life and authenticity in a way that makes it a lot of fun to read.

It’s 1785 in Georgian London and shipping merchant Jonah Hancock is disturbed by a violent knocking at his door. He’s about to discover one of his captains has sold his ship for what he claims is a mermaid. And the quiet, if lonely, existence he has been living since the death of his wife and unborn child some years before is about to be turned inside out.

Meanwhile, in an apartment in Soho, the famous courtesan Angelica Neal takes stock of her situation following the death of her benefactor, a middle-aged Duke who supported her in life but cruelly overlooked her in his will. Her options dwindling and the money running out, Angelica is under some pressure to find a new protector or accept the offer of the ‘abbess’ of King’s Place, Mrs Chappell, doyen of the most famous brothel in London.

The story that follows takes both of these lives and weaves them together in a tale of ambition, obsession and desperation. Written in the present tense, there’s a kind of bustling immediacy that immerses you in the action, rich in detail, and giving the impression of what an exhausting hubbub 19th century London must have been. Somehow Gowar manages to balance that detail with an absorbing and pacy plot, which isn’t always the case. What I loved most about this book though, was the way that it handles the mermaid, or really the idea of the mermaid and what it represents, pulling in aspects of its folklore to suggest clever parallels with both Angelica and Jonah, both of whom are often regarded as ‘unnatural creatures’ in their own lives.

There’s a strong theme throughout of ownership and possession, which Gowar uses to illuminate the struggles of Georgian women who ultimately cannot own themselves or their own lives, and find themselves constantly vulnerable as a result. Angelica and the mermaid are the same creature – both there to be acquired, pored over, displayed and greedily consumed; worthy only in terms of the money they bring to their owner and at risk of being sold on when they become troublesome.

I feel like I’m still mulling over the final part of the novel (which I won’t say anything about here because…spoilers). There’s almost an aspect of magical realism to it; it certainly becomes harder to separate reality from, well, imagination? Psychosis? Depression? I’d love to know what other people thought. It’d be a good discussion at a book group, I suspect. The book definitely plumbed some hidden, murky depths (bad pun, just awful) that I’m still exploring and that would lend themselves well to re-readings. In many respects, it represents, through the mermaid, an exorcism of sorts for two people who have much to let go of in their pasts.

All of which means that I heartily recommend reading it, if only so you can come back here and talk to me about it…