Richard, an eminent professor of literature, has married his star pupil who is younger than him by forty years. At her insistence he has taken her north to Orkney for their honeymoon. Here under the tumultuous skies and ever present sea Richard comes to see that he hardly knows his pale wife whose fingers and toes are curiously webbed and who he is unable to capture in a photograph leaving him only able to ‘compile an entire album of phantoms’. As his obsession with her increases she seems to move further and further away from him, spending her days sitting staring at the sea and the horizon ‘a line called the hilder she says, in these parts; a line sometimes luminous, sometimes obscure. Just as she is – luminous, obscure’. All the while she is on the beach Richard watches her from the house supposedly writing his latest book. Orkney is a dark, intense tale of the mysteries of marriage and the never ending lure of the sea from previous winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (for The Still Point).
Orkney is written from Richard’s point of view in the first person and at first the intense beauty of the language beguiles the reader with its lilting poetic rhythms and we can hear the constant ebb and flow of the sea. We feel the love they have for one another and hope their unusual marriage is successful. Then, however, the wife’s behaviour, sitting alone on the beach refusing to engage with her new husband coupled with his eerie vigils watching her shifts our sympathy away from them.
The wife wakes in the night constantly suffering from dreams of drowning (she is unable to swim) and the sea starts to invade their cottage driving an unavoidable wedge between them. They can only come together via stories of romance and folklore. She tells Richard stories of selkies and mermaids and we feel the boundary between fact and fiction as it blurs like the hilder. She becomes ‘your Ariel, your Vivien, your Melusine’ and he is perhaps Merlin, her teacher. Sackville makes intelligent use of myth, legend and literature to create an eerie otherness to the story that captivates the reader and draws them into her strange mystical world.
As the story progresses we begin to doubt the basis of the couple’s relationship. Richard recalls the first time he saw her: ‘the leaves already falling; they were tangled in your hair’. She dismisses this complaining ‘I’m not a vagrant’. Then ‘you wore a purple sweater, the colour of heather on the heath’ and again she contradicts him: ‘I have never owned a purple sweater’. She hides the secret of what happened to her father who has disappeared but seems to grow in presence, intimidating Richard.
The original romance and allure of their relationship starts to turn into something darker. They endlessly repeat her sitting on the beach with Richard watching, the making of toast and drinking whiskey. The game they play of listing as many words as they can to describe, for example, the colour of the sea or sky becomes repetitive and one feels that everyone, including the reader, needs to break free. Sackville’s skill is that we all feel the sea crashing above us; we are all drowning and need a change from Richard’s crushing obsession: ‘I want to retrieve and store every flake of skin that she chews from her lip and so carelessly spits out to the mercy of the wind’.
Towards the end of the book Sackville uses blank book space to illustrate the searing gap left in the story and in the end it was this that made the book for me. The intense atmosphere lifts and air is allowed to circulate. The change is dramatic. My only criticism of Orkney is that although the majority of the writing is intensely beautiful there are instances where the writing strays dangerously near to over-writing and images that purport to be fresh (‘the clouds have clotted through the night’) but aren’t, occasionally jar.
Any Cop?: Orkney is intelligent and suffocating, vivid and dreamlike. It won’t be for everyone but Sackville is a great literary talent, one to watch in the future.