It always interesting when a writer has a narrator who is of different gender from them. Questions arise about the authenticity of the narrative voice and you can’t help but ask how you would view the book if it had been written by someone else, always looking for inconsistencies, deliberate or otherwise. This applies to novels such as Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, Iain Banks’ Whit and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room.
In her latest novel, Orkney, Amy Sackville tells the tale through her narrator, Richard, an English professor in his 60s who has just married an ex-student of his who is four decades younger. There are moments when Richard views his un-named wife as a sexual object; realistic perhaps, but I feel I would have viewed them differently, or at least with more suspicion, if the author had been male. This is neither a good or bad thing, just an observation which perhaps reflects my own hang-ups and obsessions more than anything else, and they should not deflect from what is a quite beautifully written novel.
It is vital that Richard is our narrator as Orkney looks at obsession, ideals of love, self delusion and vanity from a definitively male perspective. The book is an understated tale of idealised and unrealistic love which has a magical realist quality that owes more to George Mackay Brown than it does Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Sackville nods towards the ancient myths of the selkie, the kelpie and mermaids, the legendary women of the water who tempt men to their demise and ruin. Are they simply figments of Richard’s classically minded imagination, or is there more to it? Where does the truth lie?
Having Richard as the narrator means that readers know as much about his wife as he does, and it is increasingly obvious that isn’t much. Richard believes that he has been given a final chance at happiness with another, although the reality is that it seems this relationship causes only anguish, jealousy and doubt (all understandable and horribly recognisable). He mythologises her out of all proportion, and is determined that she will fulfil these ideals without any understanding of who she really is and what she is searching for. While his wife looks for answers to unnamed questions out to sea, he is unaware of how she is feeling and what concerns her, apart from the fragments of information she lets slip in often drunken late-night conversations which he instigates, or as mutterings in her restless sleep.
This is a quite believable and fantastically poetic love story. Richard’s literary allusions lend it a classical feel and deliberately allow parallels with other myths and legends. He is projecting on to his wife an identity which cannot exist except in his mind, and there is the inevitable feeling that Richard wishes to tame this other worldly woman, to control her. There is also an air of voyeurism in the way that Richard views his wife, framing her through the kitchen window as she stares out to sea. Both are aware of this behaviour, and he also believes that others gaze on her as well. A long term bachelor, he is overly protective of what he seems to view as his most precious possession. This is a love affair he does not wish to share.
Like many of the tales that come from the Highlands and Islands there is sadness at the heart of Orkney; a feeling of impending tragedy, inevitable loss and the unexplained which the book has in common not only with tales from the past, but also with more recent examples of the area’s rich, and often overlooked, literature. Kevin MacNeil’s The Stornoway Way and Robert Alan Jamieson’s Da Happie Laand are just two other novels which share this atmosphere.
Orkney itself is used sparingly, but to great effect. Despite nods to civilisation in visits to pubs and shops, there is no doubt that this is a wild place; one where Richard feels uncomfortable and ill at ease, and where his wife seems to come alive. This difference increases the space between them as he cannot understand his wife and her connection to this land, and it appears she has no desire to be understood.
Orkney reminded me of an epic love poem in the manner of Pushkin or Byron, not in terms of style but of tone. Although the language is rich and vivid, the novel is never over illustrated by excessive description or prose. Sackville manages to find the applicable description for feeling or place with the skill of a master craftsman. The plot, such as it is, is slight and the end is almost inevitable, but that is not important. Like all of my favourite novels, Orkney uses intricate language and applies it to an exploration of human psychology. I want to understand better how people are, and do so in the most poetic, artistic and appropriate manner possible. Orkney is one of those books that leaves you with a better understanding of how people are, and how you are. You may not like everything it tells you, but it’s important to know.