Orkney goes nowhere with a turgid tale of island strife, writes Hannah McGill
Orkney by Amy Sackville
THE December half of a May-December marriage, a professor named Richard, is taking his new wife to her birthplace for their honeymoon. (Well, near her birthplace; she can’t remember which island she was born on, so she sticks a pin in a map, these “tiny ragged islands” being apparently interchangeable.) En route, he asks if she’s happy. This is what Amy Sackville’s text gives us as response:
“Happy? I’m exulting.” Effervescing. Jubilant. “I’m in raptures,” she cried, “I’m rapturous. I am,” she said… “as they say, on cloud nine… Ecstatic.”
Yes, those are all terms for being happy, aren’t they? Elsewhere in this second novel, some marmalade is described as well-preserved, mature, pungent and – lest we readers still fancy it might be fresh – ripe; and a nasty dinner gets to be vile, putrid, turgid, rancid, obnoxious, stomach churning and emetic. Turgid? Really? Not quite the right word for some bad sausage and mash, but maybe appropriate for prose that never uses one word where seven will do. Sometimes that means elegant descriptions; more often it means exhausting overwriting.
And in the service of what? All we’re given by way of story is a woman rendered in endless gushy metaphors and soubriquets (“she is Protean, a Thetis, a daughter of the sea… a whittled trinket… a spiky urchin… an oyster… my nymph… my Nimue... my red-mouthed virgin Lamia…” – it’s all like this) by an unpleasant man who glorifies her whilst regarding everyone else in the world as an idiot. Especially if they live in Orkney.
The title of this book suggests that its location might have something to do with its content. Not really so. Sackville’s unnamed isle is just there to be evocatively desolate and populated by stinky, leering bumpkins. Hopefully the portrayal of Orcadians here is revealing only of Richard’s imaginative limitations, and not those of the writer, but since his observations about the impenetrable dialect and hideous deformities of the local “crones” and “grotesques” go unchallenged, it’s hard to say.
A first-person protagonist unaware of his own snobbery and self-delusion and how it might affect those close to him isn’t an uninteresting premise, but even if that was her spur, Sackville doesn’t take it anywhere.
She just gives us a pretentious old racist with an improbably wan and ditzy child bride, and lets us endure his verbose silliness for 250 pages until something finally happens.
The girl, meanwhile, is absolutely unknowable; we don’t get a name for her or a sense of what she looks like, except that she might be an albino. Which, like the exact island on which one is born, might be the sort of thing one would know, and discuss with one’s spouse, were one a real person, and not a character in a self-consciously lyrical novel.