Amy Sackville’s Orkney is challenging and enchanting.
The first-person narrator is a sixty-something professor of literature who arrives on a remote Orkney island with his twenty-one-year-old bride, a former student. This is to be their honeymoon. But, for all their eating, drinking and storytelling together, they spend most of the daytime apart. She is out on the beach watching the sea; he – a Keats scholar – stays inside, working on an endless tome, and watching her watching the sea.
Not much ‘plot,’ then, but tension builds around the mystery of the young wife. Sackville performs her own enchantment on the reader with long, flowing sentences that mesmerise. She catches and sustains the high tone of her male, academic narrator, who is, clearly, not quite reliable.
Seen only through the Prof’s eyes can we be sure that what he is seeing is real? We never learn his wife’s name but are regularly reminded of her white hair, webbed hands and feet and her recurring nightmares in which the sea tries to claim her. Though she is drawn to the shore each day she can’t swim and fears the water. We learn that she was born among these islands but that her father mysteriously disappeared. She will not speak of her family.
The pleasure in reading Orkney is in the fine writing and the ambiguity of a story that refuses to satisfy our want for explanation and for realism. That said there is enough realism to have us believe we are in Orkney – landscape and weather are beautifully evoked, the sea is made palpable: “Out at the sea’s edge, the water churns over, a static rolling like horses pawing the ground…” Other people seem solid enough – the dour Mrs Odie who brings eggs to the cottage and comes to clean. When the Prof and his white-haired wife visit the pub they encounter an all too ordinary family on a bird-watching holiday.
As the Prof tries to probe his wife’s secrets, her past, she says, ‘Let it go,’ and sets off to the shore again. Feeling sorry for himself the Prof muses: “The knight-at-arms is left to loiter palely on the cold hillside by his Belle Dame. But in what sense is she without Mercy? [she] Wraps him in fantasy and then abandons him to waste and rot? What is the nature of this enchantment? Or is it only madness, or a dream, and if so, whose?”
In the Prof’s questions are this reader’s questions.
It seems that Sackville has spun a whole novel from the Keats’s poem, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ furnishing the sparse narrative of that poem with this white haired woman. There’s also a good helping of folktale and myth threaded throughout the book. So, for me, the wife seemed to be a figment of the Prof’s literary imagination; a mermaid dreamed up to ward off the end of his productive, potent life. Looked at this way, the story becomes a dramatisation of his desire and frustration.
In this ambitious second novel Sackville has created a sophisticated ‘folktale’ for now, that explores desire [its insatiability], the impossibility of knowing another person, no matter how enchanting you may find them, and the stories we invent around our separateness.
It is refreshing to find such literary boldness and a narrative that plays on long after the last page.
Amy Sackville talks about her writing process, here.