Amy Sackville on setting her new novel in Orkney

Amy Sackville. Picture:
Amy Sackville. Picture:
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AMY Sackville’s first novel, The Still Point, was partly set in the frozen wilds of the North Pole. In Sackville’s hands, and thanks to her mesmerising, sinewy prose, her Arctic was a strange and monstrous place of “abstract complex geometries, gigantic crystals glinting off every surface and smashing slowly into glittering facets”.

It was an icy wasteland shimmering on the edges of our imagination as much as the world. And, fittingly, Sackville had never actually been there when she wrote it.

Her second novel, Orkney, ventures north again – to the archipelago of islands lying just beyond mainland Scotland that Orkney’s beloved poet George Mackay Brown once described as “sleeping whales … beside an ocean of time”. And this time Sackville did go, spending a solitary week in a croft house on Westray, walking, writing “and just looking out of the window for hours on end at the changing light”. So what is it with Sackville – a young, urbane novelist who worked in publishing before studying creative writing at Goldsmiths – and far-flung, freezing, northern climes?

“I think it’s the idea of somewhere on the edges of what is known,” she says. “I’m interested in places that are always subject to revision, places on maps where the territory is unknown. Orkney writers like George Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir often refer to a sense of flux, of things being unstable. There is a kind of blurring, whether of history and myth or sea and sky that’s interesting to explore through narrative and structure. And I’m interested in all the different settlers who have occupied the islands over thousands of years and left their traces on the land.”

Sackville was born in 1981 and grew up all over the UK thanks to “restless” parents. Her mother and father, both pharmacists, met in Edinburgh while studying at Heriot-Watt University and have since returned to the capital after retiring. Before that, the family lived a peripatetic life, moving between Plymouth, York, Milton of Campsie near Glasgow, and Durham. “I think that’s why I still never feel settled anywhere,” Sackville says, sounding rather pleased. A formative start for a writer, then? “Yes,” she says. “It gave me an outsider perspective too.”

She wrote a little as a teenager, but mostly journals that were “more of an account of my intellectual life, what I was reading and thinking, if that doesn’t sound horribly pretentious”. At Leeds University she studied English and theatre and at Oxford she wrote her thesis on James Joyce, Salman Rushdie and “encyclopaedic books that seem to want to incorporate everything”. (Her books, incidentally, appear to do the complete opposite.) Afterwards, she worked in publishing for a couple of years before taking the plunge and applying to Goldsmiths. This is where she wrote most of The Still Point. “There were a lot of rejection letters,” she recalls. “They were very positive rejection letters though, mostly saying ‘we loved the book but we’re not acquiring debut fiction at the moment’.”

Eventually independent publisher Portobello Books picked up The Still Point and it became a phenomenally successful debut. It was longlisted for the Orange and won the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Critics were bowled over by Sackville’s ability to “wield language like a wand”. She was described as Virginia Woolf’s younger sister and hailed by the John Llewellyn Rhys judges as “a writer of seemingly limitless promise”.

Not much pressure, then, when it came to writing Orkney? Sackville laughs. “It was really difficult,” she admits.”The thing is, The Still Plot was unusually plotted for me. I’m actually not massively interested in plot. I’m more interested in structure and texture than beginning, middle, and end. Orkney is more experimental in form and that was a deliberate decision on my part. It’s how I want to position myself as a writer. But yes, I am nervous about how this book will be received.”

Orkney is a short, strange novel about a couple on their honeymoon in Orkney. He is an ageing English professor on sabbatical. She is his star pupil: enigmatic, silver-haired, and, like the heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, deliberately unnamed. The story is told from the husband’s point of view, an interloper on Orkney as well as, you suspect, the life of his young wife. She is doomed to forever be the subject of his male gaze. Often literally too, as he spends much of the day watching her from the window of their old creaky cottage, as she in turn watches the sea. So far, so clichéd.

Yet Sackville is doing something more complex here. What begins as a familiar, almost fairytale-like narrative ends as something more fragmented, unsettling, and odd. “The fact that her perspective is missing is important,” she tells me. “As far as he is concerned she is an imaginary figure in his head. I’m interested in who gets to tell a story. He is creating her. She doesn’t exist beyond the text that he imposes on her. I was interested in the power structures between them and in the idea of bewitching and enchanting. He is a figure of authority in the first instance but he ends up in thrall to her.” And by the end, without giving too much away, she manages to escape his gaze, leaving a gaping absence in the narrative too.

Providing a brooding, bruised, ever-changing backdrop to all this is Orkney, the book’s most compelling character of all. In a tribute to Virginia Woolf’s experimental masterpiece, The Waves, the sea in Orkney functions as a kind of rhythmic talisman, its ebb and flow mirrored in the actions, ideas, and themes of the book. More than anything, Sackville’s Orkney is a breathtaking place in the most literal of senses. It’s a land of “wan sun”, “barren scrubland”, “thinning mist”, and “a powdery opaque light dusting the sea and her body”. “The islands are a herd of cragged beasts,” she writes, “their scurfy backs just breaking the surface of the water, limbs and bellies and tiny primordial heads far, far beneath.”

“Orkney is an in-between place,” Sackville tells me. “It’s in between cultures, lands, histories, and stories. It’s an untethered, unfixed place.” Is that why she loves it so much? “There is something quite special about it. George Mackay Brown writes a lot about the poet’s work being about silence. I think that’s the sort of tension that fascinates me – the space between words and silence. And it’s certainly something you find in Orkney.”

• Orkney, by Amy Sackville, is published by Granta, priced £12.99