Book review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
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THIS powerful tale of inequality is magical in every way, discovers Ashley Davies

In this beguiling, absorbing debut novel by Kirsty Logan – whose short story collection, The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales, had critics speaking in hushed tones and comparing her work to Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter – the Earth is flooded. As a consequence, land is at a premium and those whose ancestors had occupied the literal high ground are now in the superior position of being able to inhabit a world where the ground is steady underfoot, where trees are prized – worshipped even – and the dominating water is to be kept at arm’s length.

A vast social divide has opened up between these land dwellers – or landlockers as they’re known here – and the damplings, an underclass who are forced to live forever at sea, making a meagre living any way they can.

Logan has created a world of delicately drawn and intriguing characters here, the central ones being two very young women whose lives could not be more different but whose strange circumstances push and pull them towards each other with the power of a tide.

Callanish lives frugally alone on an island (a house on stilts, really), exiled because of a mistake she made when she was younger. As a gracekeeper, her job is to perform burial rites for damplings. She is hungry but never fishes as she imagines the water around her home to be congested and polluted with the corpses she has prepared and sunk, and the revulsion at the thought of rotting flesh and thousands of bones around her helps her fight the powerful draw the ocean has for her. She lives in almost complete isolation, her only interaction being with the bereaved, the occasional messenger, a desperate gracekeeper from another island and her graces – birds she keeps in cages and whose lifespan is linked with the suggested duration of mourning.

Callanish wears gloves when she is not alone to hide the fact that her fingers are webbed. Her mother – perhaps representing a society suspicious of otherness but whose acceptance we crave – made her believe it was shameful.

Our second key character is North, who is part of the Excalibur circus, a convoy of boats that travels the world performing to islanders. North’s act is performed with her closest companion, a bear. Like many others in the circus, she has no memory of her parents (though the opening chapter reveals the horrifying moment of their death, at which Callanish happened to be present when the circus visited her island when she was a child), and the other performers are the closest thing she has to family.

Jarrow, also known as Red Gold, the ring master, is determined that his vain, selfish son will marry North and while they are both repelled by the idea, they daren’t say no. The alpha male has been saving money to buy them some land, the ultimate upward social mobility. North, meanwhile, is hiding the early stages of pregnancy and it is clear that the father is nobody in the circus. The need to conceal her predicament, to protect her bear and the unborn life within her, the spiteful jealousy of Jarrow’s beautiful wife Avalon and the fact that there is nowhere else she truly belongs combine to challenge her already precarious existence.

Looming large in the socio-economic landscape of this watery world is the military, who do as they please and who are subject to harsh satire from the circus clowns (not the funny/creepy slapstickers we’re familiar with but angry, libidinous men who “wanted to scream and rage and have the whole world listen. They wanted sex and death and power. They were silenced and it was starving them.”) and the revivalist ships – big, slick, rich religious organisations that compete with the circus for audiences.

Everything about this book is beautiful; the language is as poetic and diaphanous as nature and the many characters who contribute to the story are utterly authentic in this magic realist world. Every one of them stays with you, leaving you craving more about their back stories and their fates. Logan has a uniquely light touch on the theme of fluidity of gender and, above all, it all seems driven by humanity. This is a delicious piece of work from a supremely talented young writer.