A literature professor marries his prize student, a woman forty years his junior, and at her request he takes her to the sea for their honeymoon. He is embarked on his life’s work, a book about enchantment-narratives in literature, most all of them involving strange girls and women, but soon finds himself distracted by his own enchantment for his new white-haired young wife.
They travel to the Orkney Islands, the ancient Mesolithic and Neolithic site north of the Scottish coast, “the Seal Islands,” a barren place of extraordinary beauty. And as the days of their honeymoon pass his desire and his constant, yearning contemplation become his normality. His mysterious bride becomes his entire universe.
He is consumed.
Wow. Just wow.
This novel grabbed me by the throat in the first few pages, which is a really uncommon thing to happen, especially with these kinds of “high literary” type novels. I was expecting it to be good, since Kirsty at The Literary Sisters had told me I needed to read it, so my expectations were high. This book absolutely met them.
I have always loved Scotland, and in particular have been bewitched by the highlands and islands. Travelling there has only deepened my fascination, so I was really excited to read a novel set in the Orkney islands. I read Letters From Skye last year and was disappointed, but thought that since Sackville had actually spent time on the islands, she would have a far better chance of capturing them and doing them justice. I’d read some very mixed reviews, but thought that since Kirsty had specifically recommended it to me, she’d be far more likely to get it right. Needless to say, she did!
The prose flows in a fantastically smooth, relaxing and gripping way. I felt totally immersed in the flow, the colours and descriptions. Richard’s mind was an interesting one, and him being a particularly observant character made the islands really shine.
I finished this one on the train, and by bedtime I actually had sat down and began mind mapping the various points of the mystery. I seriously hardly ever do this! The wife (who is never named) is so enigmatic, but Richard is perhaps moreso. I never felt that I had quite got a handle on him. I’m certainly not as repulsed as other readers seem to have been, but there’s almost something demonic about him and his obsession with his wife. He watches her, becomes jealous when any other human comes into contact with her, particularly if they are male. Even dirty old men living in abandoned huts are worthy of Richard’s ire, for daring to lay eyes upon his young wife- yes, always the emphasis on the “young”.
“She’s staring out to sea now. My young wife. There she stands on the barren beach, all wrapped up in her long green coat, among the scuttle and clutter of pebbles and crabs. She stares out as the water nears her feet and draws back, and when that soft and insistent suck of the tide gets close enough to slurp at her toes she shuffles herself up the shore. Soon the beach will be reduced to a strip of narrow sand and she will be forced to retreat to the rocks; and then, I think, she’ll come back to me. In the meantime, I watch from the window, as she stares out to sea.”
I’m still unsure about what happened at the end of the novel. Richard admits he “may have been a bit rough” in his drunken state, and bruises are often mentioned in passing. I don’t want to give anything more away, so I’ll stop there, but let’s just say that a LOT of alcohol is consumed by Richard over the course of the novel, combined with a lot of fairy tales involving mystical women. Perhaps those factors combined has made an impact on his mind.
My only criticism is that it began to drag around the midway point until about one “day” (the chapters are divided into the days of their honeymoon) before the end, which is when the mystery proper begins to take form. Nothing in particular happens in this section- it’s just a lot of watching the sea and drinking while telling stories. The saving grace for this is the writing, and how Sackville has woven Richard’s descent into mad obsession in this period. He goes from doting older man to creepy and disturbing in a relatively quick space of time, which made me begin to feel very nervous!
I feel like I could just wax lyrical about this novel for ages, so I’ll try to keep it short. I have already purchased Sackville’s first novel The Still Point, which I’ve heard fantastic things about. I’ll try not to leap straight into it, as I did Orkney, which I gobbled down like I was starving, but give myself some more time and leave myself something to look forward to!
Let’s just say that this book is going to haunt me for a very long time.