Little Toller, 2017
Review by Jordan Ogg
One of the most popular articles published on this site is a list of the greatest island books. It begins with a note on how the island, as location, metaphor and character, has played an instrumental role in literature right from the very start. Havergey, the eponymous holm of John Burnside’s novella, manages to occupy each of these literary devices.
The story opens somewhere off the west coast of Scotland. It is late in the afternoon on the first of January 2056 and all is serene. From Havergey's shore a man described as The Watcher peers upon a "periwinkle blue" sea, looking toward a mainland that is "nothing more than haze and speculation". In washes a dark-blue box of the Dr Who variety, carrying a man who has travelled in time from 2017.
The passenger is placed in quarantine, which consists of a small wooden structure containing a library of documents, a kettle and a hob. The space becomes his hermitage as he begins a study of The Creation Myth that underpins life for the island's inhabitants. His reference materials are a jumble of unfinished manuscripts and fragments of notes left behind by Havergey's settlers and those who followed them after the Great Catastrophe, an event that wiped out 90% of the earth’s population.
We learn of life on Havergey in furtive hints and glimpses. What seems certain is that it is a quite literal land of milk and honey if, that is, we replace the former with tea, which is consumed in great quantities by The Watcher and the traveller as the story progresses. Their conversations are long and open, unwinding over several days where other voices, few of them reliable, begin to come into view.
Burnside has not been shy in projecting his views onto the island and the story that unfolds around it. As a journalist he has written on climate change, aiming his focus on large wind farms he sees as bringing about more harm than good. Towards the end of the book, one such development proposed in Shetland is savaged by his time traveller for the negative carbon balance it will deliver if it goes ahead. In these moments Burnside’s readers get in on a kind of Desert Island Disks version of the author’s world view, one where it seems he would be happy to leave much of contemporary capitalist society behind for an organic croft and a tea urn.
While short in length, the book is oceans wide in scope, taking in science fiction, Eastern philosophy, critical theory, post-apocalyptic visions of the future and nature writing. It’s an odd blend, at once playful and earnest, and for the most part it all fits together pretty well.
Many people dream of utopia and each person’s dream will have its own character. If Havergey is Burnside’s particular blend of bliss, then it is certainly worth spending some time with. Chances are you will want to stay.
Havergey is published by Little Toller.