Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Sackville: Orkney

Amy Sackville (2013) Orkney Granta, London; 224 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84708664-8

Richard is an academic nearing retirement. He teaches literature and is currently working on a book about nineteenth century enchantment narratives. Very recently he married one of his students who is forty years younger than him (plenty of real-life models there). He has been single and lonely most of his life and his new wife has no siblings – her companions have mainly been books. She was born in the Orkney Islands and grew up in Northumberland, but her father disappeared when she was young and she is estranged from her mother. Richard’s family have all died so it was a very small affair at the registry office.

The young wife wanted to go north and be near the sea, so they honeymoon on an island in the Orkneys which she selected at random. The novel opens with the two of them travelling to the island and their arrival as a short winter’s day is coming to a close. They stay in an old cottage next to the shore, isolated from the town. Only the owner, Mrs Odie, visits occasionally to clean or bring groceries.

Richard is very conscious of his age and the relative youth of his wife. He realises he will only see the early part of her life and that their time together will be limited, yet he is very happy to be in love at last. The courtship was slow and shy, and he had fears about his attractiveness and suitability. His new wife is affectionate and makes regular declarations of love, but we also see that they are very much separate souls with interests and private lives greatly different from each other. While they are physically intimate, they do not share their personal histories or emotions – those things that normally cement a relationship – and their memories of events together often diverge markedly.

Richard tries to use his time at the cottage to work on his book, but his wife spends most of her days sitting or standing on the shore, mesmerised by the sea. She cannot swim so has no intention of going into the water, but the sea is both a source of deep pleasure and terror for her.

They meet some local residents, including an old man living in a derelict cottage, as well as a family visiting the island to watch birds. Richard is acutely sensitive to any sign of interest in his wife from other men, and such attention – real or imagined – makes him very jealous. He harbours an insecurity that sits in opposition to his love, and it will not let him rest.

He buys his wife a book of local folklore and when they are together they spend time telling each other tales of fantastic sea creatures, shape-shifting women, mermaids and Selkie men. Each night his wife has vivid dreams, always about the sea. At first these are pleasant but they become increasingly upsetting and she often wakes in fright. Richard has never remembered his dreams, but as the days pass he also begins to recall reveries of the ocean and its phantoms.

Richard’s childhood memories of the seaside are those of the day tripper: sandcastles, eating fish and chips, buying sticks of rock. Her memories are more elemental: the sounds and colours of the sea and sky, the constant movement of the sea like a heartbeat of nature. He is fascinated watching her watch the sea but he never really understands what draws her to it, what she is looking at – or for.

As the honeymoon draws to its end, Richard begins to re-examine his life. Is it worth returning to dull academia with a younger head of department who regards him as dated and dispensable? Or should he seek a new life with his wife – a contented and domestic retirement, perhaps? His wife is also thinking of her future, but the two of them never share their respective visions. Things will come to a head, but not in a way that Richard expects.

This is Amy Sackville’s second novel and contains some beautiful lyrical description. She also has a convincing voice as the male narrator. The interplay between Richard and his wife, and the parallels with the legends and stories they tell to each other, mirror each other well and add a dimension of mystery. The cold windswept winter and ever-present sea permeate the book, with the fire in the cottage hearth their only refuge from the storms and howling gales.

Sackville teaches creative writing and occasionally I found the prose a bit laboured, with waves of adjectives and synonyms threatening to drown the plot. Anyone who follows literary prizes will know the drill. For me, a more sparing deployment of the lyrical would have strengthened the story. But I very much enjoyed this credible and memorable tale of two weeks on an island that change forever the lives of a newly married couple.

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