Book review: Clear, by Carys Davies

Set during the Highland Clearances, this tale of a church minister sent to relocate the sole inhabitant of an island is impressive for its precise, carefully-calibrated use of language, writes Stuart Kelly

This is an ingenious title for an astonishing novel. It has multiple possible meanings. Clear is a more meteorological book than most, attentive to miniscule fluctuations of tide and wind and rain and mist. Novels are perhaps even better than paintings at how quickly light dances and scatters; that landscape art can even hint at mutability is a minor miracle. There is a more obvious referent in the crux of the plot. In the 19th century, John Ferguson is sent to an unnamed island to relocate the sole inhabitant. Ivar is to be cleared. But it is also a story about the hard-won acquisition of clarity. John and Ivar have no common language. In this geographical and linguistic limbo, legal documents must be served and enforced. Yet all this is not quite the measure of the book. That which will become clear is ambiguous, hazy, subtle and messy.

The reader is brilliantly wrong-footed from the outset. If there are two trigger warning words in a particular strain of Scottish historiography, they might well be Clearance and Calvinism. The novel is set relatively late in the period: certainly after the notorious factor Patrick Sellar for example. It is a time when the idea of any salvage from the wreckage or resistance to the cataclysm is almost non-existent. Ferguson, a church minister, has sided with the Free Church in what is known as the Great Disruption. The Disruption has been ill-served in literature – off the top of my head I can only summon The Awakening Of George Darroch. It seems to me strange that the assertion of the democratic will against land-owning privilege is not something Scotland would want to celebrate. But then I suppose a few swings got tied up on a Sunday and we forgot about principles. So the Rev. John Ferguson is not a fire and brimstone monster, but a diligent, dutiful, humble man. Apart from his wife, who he has to leave on the mainland, his one love is his “Great Project”, a translation of the Gospel into Scots. (Historically this is astute: the Rev. Henry Scott Riddell was engaged in the same thing at the same time in the Borders). This linguistic curiosity will be invaluable. Those who joined the Free Church lost their livings and homes: it was martyring experience. Becoming a laird’s bailiff was not the pre-eminent choice.

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Arriving, Ivar and John manage not to meet each other. “Pale and shining in the cool sunlight, from a distance the naked man resembled an enormous jellyfish”. John has almost immediately managed to fall badly. What commences is a strange recovery and recuperation, both meagre and tender. What John does not know is that Ivar found the calotype of John’s wife Mary, and is besotted with it already, an eerie, stilted kind of ménage á trois. Nor does either know that a frustrated Mary is making her way to the island to clear her husband from it along with Ivar. It is, in weather speak, a seeding storm.

It is in the description of the shared outcrop of uncommon ground that this novel excels. “There was a word in his language that described the covering and uncovering of a sunken rock by the sea, and it would also have described exactly the way the dark and lumpy object kept sinking beneath the shallow waves and then appearing again”. On the first page someone mentioned “an uppity sea”, and there is an almost arcane blur between physical and psychological states. Words are stubborn against becoming metaphor. John begins a kind of thesaurus, at first just with simple signifiers. Davies cites Jakob Jakobsen’s Etymological Dictionary Of The Norn Language In Shetland, 1908-1921; and although “now extinct” seems bad enough I find the “in four volumes” equally painful.

John summarises the problem astutely and sadly. “Other words were harder because there were so many to do with the variations in the weather and the wind and in the behaviour of the water that seemed to mean something very distinct to Ivar but that John Ferguson couldn’t confidently define or left him flummoxed – words like gilgal and skreul, pulter and yog, fester and dreetslengi, all of which appeared to have a precise and particular meaning that was beyond his experience or powers of observation; all of which, with a slight sense of defeat, he translated collectively as ‘a rough sea’”.

It would be ungracious in the extreme to reveal what happens, but it is something that the word “gracious” might begin to cover. I hope very much I have not made the novel seem – dread phrase – “poetic”, though there is a formidable rightness in its language. It very briskly captures character like a silhouette, and has a charming concern with the ethics, aesthetics and anxieties about false teeth. A lot of the novels I have been reading recently – Victoria Mackenzie, Gwendoline Riley, Samantha Harvey, Alexander Lernet-Holenia – have been slender. Distilled is a better word.

Clear, by Carys Davies, Granta, £12.99