Through pewtery clouds

Amy Sackville, Orkney

Granta, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781847086648

reviewed by Eli Davies

On the surface the story of Orkney is familiar, perhaps even tired: Richard, a jaded literature professor in his sixties, seduces and marries a younger student, a pale, dreamy twenty-one year old, unnamed throughout, and whisks her away on their honeymoon. This is very much Richard’s story and the book deals with many of the themes one might associate with such a template – male ego, insecurity, a preoccupation with youth and old age. He is not a sympathetic character, but Sackville’s writing brings complexity to this well-trodden territory, and the strange landscape of the Orkney islands gives the story depth and texture.

Richard brings his new wife to Orkney at her bidding. She tells him that she was born on one of the islands but she can’t remember which one; this is in keeping with the air of mystery that surrounds her throughout the novel. They decide upon one at random: she sticks a pin in a map, their fate ‘decided by a child’s game or a witch at play.' It is an unlikely honeymoon: the island is grey, rocky and sparsely populated, and the couple spend most of their days apart. Richard has work to do  a compendium of forty years of his study, on 19th-century enchantment narratives– and she goes out to the beach while he works, sometimes for hours, walking or simply standing and looking out to sea, apparently mesmerised. They spend their evenings together indoors, telling stories, eating and drinking. At night, she has strange, intense dreams involving the sea, which become ever more symbolic as the novel progresses.

The sea and the sky are described again and again throughout the book. Sackville captures the constant changes in a coastal landscape: the ebb and flow of the tide, the tiny shifts of light and colour. At times the sea is ‘lively and inviting’ or ‘sapphire blue, rippling’. Elsewhere it is dark and ominous ‘as if something swells and darkens beneath the flat, wind-flecked surface’. The imagery is original and surprising: a sun as it sets is ‘pale, yellow like chilled smooth-churned butter’. Later on in the book, it shines a ‘squeamish, greenish light through pewtery clouds.’ The sea creeps beyond the beach and into the sights, smells and sensations of Sackville’s characters. On a walk through a deserted ruin, Richard feels dread ‘like cold fishscales’; his young wife’s scent, when she comes inside from the cold or emerges from the steam of the bathroom, has a salty tang. There is a lyrical sheen to this prose; the words have been worked over and over like sculpture

Richard’s wife is cast as mysterious and other-worldly: a silver-haired, kooky ingénue who doesn’t know how to cook or make coffee properly, and who slices bread ‘at crazy angles’. When he recounts their courtship her arrivals at his door are described as apparitions, a series of impressionistic encounters: ‘portraits framed in the doorway, the same pose recurring, with a bottle of wine, with leaves in her hair, with the rain running off her.’ Sinister undertones creep in: their wedding is attended by no family and he tells the reader that they ‘have no need for others now’; as he thinks of what will happen after their honeymoon he wonders to himself, ‘Will I be willing, when the time comes, to give her over to the world?’ On her days out on the beach she rarely moves beyond the frame of his window and as the book progresses he becomes more captivated by her and less able to concentrate on his work, panicking when she moves beyond his gaze.

Storytelling is a key theme and is used by the characters to control, reassure and to shape and shift identities. Richard shares with his wife the myths of enchantment that he is studying, and together in the evenings they retell the story of their courtship together. There are disparities between his version and hers – hints that he might not be the most reliable narrator. He insists that she wore purple the first time that they met but she denies it. During their first meal out, after she has picked apart a lobster, he remembers her taking his fingers into her mouth, but she says he put them there. These stories of his are about power and self-flattery: he wants to see her as dreamy and girlish, a character in one of his myths. In his mind she is bound up with the elements – sitting among flowers, set against the backdrop of the sea and the sky or lit up by moonlight. He cannot bear to imagine this pale delicate creature growing old, that her veins may ‘burst or clot or well or purple’. There is a distaste for the realities of womanhood here, a distaste that also emerges in the narrator’s descriptions of sex, which are often elliptical or coy.

The stories that the young woman tells her husband are about enchanting mermaids and selkies who turn into beautiful women when they shed their skins on land. She indulges in picturesque, romantic adventures: she goes out to the beach in the middle of the night and runs into the sea, and during a storm she lies on the rocks, laughing as the sea swirls around her. She won’t give much away about her own story and Richard knows very little about her background; the reader wonders if she is self-consciously wrapping herself in poetic mystique. It seems that there is something about femininity and myth-making here, though it is not entirely clear what Sackville is telling us - she embeds us so thoroughly in Richard’s psyche that it becomes hard at times to extricate ourselves from his view of his wife.

As the weather becomes ever more imposing and ominous, so does Richard’s insecurity and paranoia. The age difference is never forgotten and it is often merely the basis for physical observations: a ‘gamey crack’ of the knees as he gets up, or a puffed-out scramble after his wife on the rocks. But as the book progresses it becomes a source of unhappiness, insecurity, and doubt. In one scene the two have a drink in the island hotel, where they run into a family - Bob and Linda and their two sons. Out of politeness they join them at their table, a rare instance of social interaction with others, and what follows is a study in social awkwardness. The details are brilliantly rendered: the barmaid’s barely concealed scorn for Bob when he orders ice in his single malt, the tentative teenage boy who misquotes poetry, and Bob’s puppyish desire to impress his new companions. In this scene Richard appears preening and vain: he is jealous of the teenager’s youth, he compares his full head of hair with Bob’s bald patch and wants to show off his young wife like a trophy. His observations of Linda  ‘thwarted, bitter-mouthed, stout little Linda’  are cruel and misogynistic.

Richard has serious issues with women. He makes similarly unkind remarks about Mrs Odie, the cottage housekeeper, another older woman who he cannot cast as a nubile enchantress. When his wife does talk about her childhood and her parents, Richard finds himself jealous of her father, of their bond over the stories that they share in her childhood, and imagines her mother as cruel, sad and cold. He marginalises women and mothers as his anxieties about age and his distant wife grow.

There is something confusing about the power of Sackville’s writing – the beautiful language she pours into the mouth of her protagonist gives the tale a moral ambiguity. There is crispness and depth to Richard’s account, while his wife remains nameless and almost paper-thin at the end of the book. But perhaps the point of Sackville’s narrative is to leave us spooked and unsettled by Richard and his unknowable wife, and by this strange island. The great power of the novel is its lyricism, which gives the bleak and inhospitable landscape an air of enchantment, much like one of Richard’s 19th-century narratives
Eli Davies is a London-based teacher and writer.