Book review: The Girl On The Ferryboat by Angus Peter Campbell

The coloured houses of Tobermory on the island of Mull. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
The coloured houses of Tobermory on the island of Mull. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THIS is the first novel ever to be published simultaneously in Gaelic and English, the aim presumably being to lure monoglot English speakers like me further into the linguistic world that they are missing or at least to hint at what is there in the first place.

The Girl On The Ferryboat

Angus Peter Campbell

Luath, £12.99

I say “further into” because the English here is already strongly inflected with Gaelic. We begin in the 1970s, a prelapsarian Hebridean long, hot summer. Alasdair and Kate, a middle-aged couple, arrive on a peat-cart at the island’s boat-builder to check on the progress of the skiff they have ordered to celebrate their lifetime’s love. He is smoking his clay pipe, she is sitting beside him, knitting and singing. “The world could never be improved,” writes Angus Peter Campbell. “Adam and Eve never ate that apple after all.”

That same summer, on board the ferry sailing up the Sound of Mull, the boat-builder’s apprentice meets the woman who will be the love of his life too, though at the time it seems improbable, as their encounter on the ferry’s steps could hardly be briefer or apparently more inconsequential. She’s called Helen, and they won’t meet again for another four decades.

But already, I feel, I am turning Campbell’s lyrical, digressive and ornate English into something plainer, straighter and duller. And it would indeed be easy to trim away some of the details that Campbell includes, picking out for example, only the salient jobs a character has and cutting out all the digressions into proverbs, mythologies, and folk stories.

Yet to do that would be to kill off this novel. Because essentially it is about digressions, meanderings, about moving away from or losing things that ring true. Aged 18, for example, Helen lost a much-loved fiddle – a symbolic break of connection with the folk traditions she grew up among in Mull. For Alex, the boat-builder’s apprentice, the digressions of his life take him to being an arts adviser to Tony Blair and a cultural pointy-head on the small screen. Yet we know what he’s lost because Campbell spelled it out carefully in the first chapters, when Alex (confusingly, not yet named) was caulking planks for Alasdair and Kate’s skiff and learning the wholesomeness of craftsmanship. Big Roderick, the South Uist boat-builder, asks him what his education has taught him and he gives an evasive answer. “The day will come,” Big Roderick replies, “when we’ll all be strangers and we won’t believe a thing. Keep your education for that day.”

Forty years on, that day arrives: he meets Helen again on the ferry to Mull. Astonishingly, she remembers him, and they begin a relationship. I can’t pretend I find this convincing, yet by the end of the book, when Alex is looking back on his relationship and trying to make sense of everything, Campbell’s writing has become so transcendently beautiful – a delight, surely, in any language – that it hardly matters.