Rebecca Foster introduces the most recent novel by Amy Sackville
Sixty-year-old literature professor Richard and his new bride, a former student nearly 40 years his junior, are on their honeymoon in Orkney one October. Richard is an expert in enchantment narratives of the nineteenth century: fantasies and fairy tales, witches casting spells and maidens stuck in towers.
His wife is never given a name. Like the anonymous protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, she is never allowed the agency that a name permits. Instead, she is described as a strange and not-quite-human creature: she has webbed fingers and toes, her hair is silver, and she only ever wears green and grey. Moreover, she is obsessed with the ocean and often has nightmares about drowning; there is an echo of that famous opening line of Rebecca as she confesses, “I was dreaming again. I dreamt of a wave … The water coming for me.” She seems more a fish, mermaid or selkie than a young woman.
Richard and his wife spend the trip walking and staring out at the sea, drinking whisky, telling each other folktales, engaging in wordplay and, of course, making love. The frequent sexual scenes only add to the saltiness permeating the novel.
It is difficult to outline the plot because very little of consequence happens in Orkney; what ‘action’ there is seems quite cyclical and monotonous. The couple do not meet anyone apart from the cottage housekeeper, the village shopkeeper and a family of birdwatching tourists – and even such small encounters make Richard jealous. He thinks of his wife in terms of possession, in language that seems peculiarly out-of-date: “the girl is surely blameless, a captive victim.” It is as if he cannot bear for anyone else to have access to his own creature.
Indeed, the girl sometimes seems like Richard’s own creation. Because readers only see her from his perspective, she remains curiously one-dimensional, as the passive object of others’ perceptions. Richard even likens her to a painting in a book: “She arrived at my door one day at the end of August; a manuscript illumination, bright against a cobalt sky.” She recognizes how she has been objectified through her husband’s voyeurism, rendered into an example of medieval or Victorian art: “‘I’m sorry I moved beyond your frame, Richard.’ My frame? ‘The window,’ she said.”
Throughout, Richard’s vision of his wife contrasts with the slippery, amorphous reality of her: “I sometimes think I know nothing at all about her. And sometimes I think there is some particular thing that I will never know, that I can never hope to know, for all my probing.” Even with regard to the simplest incidents, his memory and hers do not mesh. He remembers first seeing her in his classroom in a purple sweater, whereas she swears it was green; he remembers her eating lobster on their first date, but she reminds him it was he who ordered it. She is such an elusive figure that readers – like Richard – wonder if she can ever be known.
The couple’s stay on Orkney does not seem to correspond to calendar time; their days are both compressed and stretched, simultaneously fleeting and endless. As Richard asserts, “We are quite out of time. It could be the present, or any time in the last thousand years of the past.” Only when Richard thinks about the future do his fears creep in: he worries what returning to ‘normal’ life will entail for them – what will his wife do while he is out teaching? How long until he retires? Might they have children, and would they be human or hybrid? “Suppose we were to bring our own little pups into the world? Silver-headed, pale, tall, unworldly; my little webbed wolf-cubs.” And how many years could this girl-wife then live on as a widow?
Yet Richard resists these thoughts of decline and death. He believes, instead, in the age-defying magic his selkie wife, “the storm-witch on the shore”, can conjure: “I will simply refuse to grow old. She who has bewitched my heart must surely have some spell to preserve me.” But as the honeymoon passes, their connection becomes less and less concrete, her character more and more ephemeral – until the reader must wonder whether she could be a mere figment of Richard’s imagination, dredged up from Tennyson after too much whisky.
With such a story, where ambiance is all and action is minimal (rather like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger), even a book of novella length can become tediously repetitive. However, Sackville’s prose is saturated with such well-written passages, such germane marine imagery, that the reader is compelled to continue. Here is one such gem: “as she dreams her submarine dreams I lie beside her, a whale’s carcass, a wrecked ship, a vast ribcage in the dark blue deep; and she is a tiny luminescent silver fish, picking me clean, in and out of all that’s left of me.”
The Still Point, Sackville’s previous novel about Arctic exploration, earned high praise for its elegant prose, winning the John Llewellyn Rhys prize in 2010. Orkney was partially written during a stay on Westray, and anyone who has visited the outlying Orkney Islands will certainly recognize that windy seaside bleakness. Still, there is something universal about the author’s evocation of the silences and mysteries in marriage. In this respect Orkney has many parallels, from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, with its tale of newlyweds who do not quite seem suited to each other. The reader need not have made a pilgrimage to Westray, for Sackville brings it to life with astonishing clarity. Though memory of the plot might not persist, the atmosphere of Orkney will linger.
Rebecca Foster is an American transplant to England. After six years as a library assistant, she is pursuing freelance writing as a full-time career. She writes for Bookkaholic web magazine and reviews books for Kirkus Indie, BookBrowse, Nudge, The Bookbag, For Books’ Sake, We Love This Book, and Third Way and Bookmarks magazines.