What are the chances of reading two books in a row which have cartographers as their central characters? This time last week I was finishing off Andrew Crumey’s excellent 1995 novel, Pfitz, for the monthly column Indelible Ink and the next day I started Linda Cracknell’s Call of the Undertow, where the blurb on the back starts “Cartographer Maggie Thame…”. I was intrigued, and it turns out that Crumey is acknowledged at the back of the book as Cracknell’s mentor. Curiouser and curiouser.
What makes this link even more interesting is that, apart from the occupation of the central characters, the two novels couldn’t be more unlike each other. Pfitz is a Voltaire like satire which plays with form and philosophy, whereas Call of the Undertow is about someone looking to escape their past, and finding that no matter where you are geographically, that is harder to do than it may seem. It is also one of the most enchanting and magical novels of the year.
Maggie Thame was involved in a tragedy in her home town of Oxford which she cannot put behind her, and this has sent her to move as far north as possible to Dunnet Head in Caithness. There she finds it hard to be accepted, or to accept, as the locals eye her with increasing suspicion. She arrives to rent the wonderful named ‘Flotsam Cottage’, and is quickly known as ‘the map lady’. During a talk to some schoolchildren about her job, she becomes intrigued by an androgynous pupil who hides behind a fringe and who she immediately feels protective towards.
This teenage wraith is Trothan Gilbertson, an unforgettable creation, who seems free to roam the local cliffs, fields and beaches with out anyone seeming to care. When he shows interest in Maggie’s work she is flattered and delighted, and takes him under her wing despite the reservations of some locals and her own doubts as to her reasons. This relationship is doomed from the beginning as Maggie must ask herself just what it is she feels for the boy, and why. Trothan is a free spirit and an engaging character, so apparently wise it is sometimes easy to forget he is only nine. Maggie’s feelings towards this charasmatic enigma are understandable, but then so are her fears.
The bleak and eerie landscape of Caithness is wonderfully evoked as a place where secrets and lies are shared between the land and the sea. Trothan is a child shaped by his surroundings, and he makes the perfect person to map his domain. The results are as much a rural psychogeography as being concerned with badlands, bedrock and beaches, and his work makes a community face its own past, just as Maggie must face hers. Trothan is the catalyst for change; an otherworldly creature out to make mischief, or perhaps to make amends.
The use of cartographer as narrator is undoubtedly a clever one as it unites the individuals in a story with their surroundings, and asks for a new take on both. Maggie may be able to map lands from Africa to the Arctic Circle, but she has no sense of where she belongs, and where she should stay, while Trothan forces people who thought they were familiar with their locale and each other to reevaluate both. Call of the Undertow takes you places you didn’t expect as not only is Maggie not sure of herself, and her state of mind, but no-one is sure of Trothan and it is through him that everything comes alive.