Amy Sackville is a novelist worth waiting for. Her debut novel, The Still Point (Portobello Books, 2010) was a book that changed my life. Pressing it on everyone in the interim, I have waited impatiently for her next offering.
Orkney is one of the most fascinating novels I have ever read, by one of Britian’s strongest new novelists. Sackville is fascinated by the effect of geography on emotion. Orkney tells the story of Richard, a 60-year old academic pursuing an obsession with mythical women that has been the foundation of a successful career; he studies 19th-century narratives of enchantment. Into his life comes a pale, almost speechless young woman: a student. She has no name, and very little corporeality.
They honeymoon, at her request, is on a small island, where she watches the sea all day, and dreams of it all night. And Richard watches her, with a possessive, fierce gaze. Sackville’s prose is flawless. She shifts between pale, undefined emotion and extraordinarily precise, evocative descriptions of landscape. “The low sun is a perfect pale disc without halo or shine, a hole-punched circle in a parchment sky.”
The couple talk about how they met; they never agree. In fact, their inability to co-narrate highlights Richard’s problem: his young wife, it seems, is so flimsy that unless pinned down by narrative, she may not exist at all. He becomes predatory, their couplings increasingly violent, her freedom increasingly restricted.
Sackville’s novel has one minor flaw. We are prevented, due to the insubstantial nature of Richard’s wife, from ever truly feeling for Richard’s predicament. However, this is not to say that the wife is an dull character. For the book to work, the female character must remain cold and indistinct, and Sackville executes this with aplomb. From the moment we meet her, the girl’s motivations are blurry – why has she taken for her husband a man forty years her senior? Richard admires her mind, but we are never exposed to it. We barely even know, beyond her slim, silvery coldness, what she looks like. She flickers in and out of rooms, and fails to create anything substantial: she doesn’t write, she cannot cook, she consents to sex only in the throes of nightmares. Instead she consumes: Richard’s stories, words and gaze. Or so Richard says, wrapped in his delicate ego and obsessed with possessing and providing for a wild creature.
The tone of the novel relies on this lack of scrutiny, and toward the end of the novel, when the plot has gathered pace, this novel shifts from a beautiful meditation to a more human tale and we are exposed to the full force of Richard’s folly. The results are haunting, and stay with the reader long after the book has finished.
An absolute must-read, this book is for all island-lovers, sea-gazers, and people enchanted by the places where reality and myth intertwine.