Kirsty Logan is very talented and in tune with current literary fashion. She calls her new book “a queer mermaid love story set on a remote island that slowly turns its inhabitants to stone – when they feel death approaching they go up a hill and become statues”. That is interesting and what’s impressive is that she embeds fantasy themes or devices comfortably in what is a satisfying and well observed, felt and imagined realistic framework. Selkies and other creatures of fairy-tales are offered us side by side with a bored girl pulling pints in the island pub or the proprietor of the only shop poring over the island’s newsletter.It’s a difficult marriage to make, a fine balancing act; Kirsty Logan brings it off, daringly skirting disaster.
Signe, a dancer, and her husband Peter, a boxer who has suffered in the ring, have brought their three children to the island in search of a refuge from a harsh world, a return to Eden. They have bought a huge rambling house in poor repair, but they’ll work on it, Peter fixing the tiles and such like himself, and eventually they will open it as a guest house. Well, perhaps. Then there is a tragedy which leaves the middle child and second daughter, Mara, horribly scarred, both physically and psychologically. Discovery of what was once the island’s mobile Library, still full of books, enables her to begin to recover. Meanwhile her sister Islay leaves the island – in search of escape – and then Mara meets Pearl, a girl of mixed race with eyes of different colours. When she is not on the island Pearl, who may be taken to represent a denial of its magnetic pull, works in showbusiness, as a mermaid on cruise ships and in a pool in La Vegas. She and Mara fall in love. Mara can be a mermaid too, if they can get Islay to return to care for the parents who are failing in several ways. But can Mara, even as a mermaid, translate to a different life? Can Pearl, who seems to represent ordinary run-of-the-mill conventional humanity – even if she impersonates a mermaid – save Mara? Or will the day inevitably arrive when she slowly climbs the hill to become a statue?
This, as you will realise, is a crude and inadequate attempt to summarise what is a richly-imagined and many-layered novel. It simplifies what is not simple, and risks making elements of the novel appear ridiculous, which they are not. If it may, with some reason, be read as a failure on my part to read the novel as it is intended to be read, and perhaps deserves to be read, this may well be the case. On the other hand, while recognising the beauty and intelligence of the writing, I confess to a degree of disappointment, even irritation. This response is unfair; it arises from a wish that Kirsty Logan had written a different book, one which, I suppose, she had no desire to write. Nevertheless the fact is that she has created something which I find more interesting than the book she has actually written. Her imagining of the family of five and of Pearl, the outsider and therefore intruder, the lover who seems to Mara’s mother and father a thief stealing their daughter away is very good; I would have loved to read it being worked-out in a setting from which people can’t retreat into fantasies about selkies and mermaids and people being turned into statues.
Well, that’s as may be. It’s fairer and more important to ask whether the author brings off what she aspired to bring off, and I would say the answer is “yes”. Marilynne Robinson has written: “as a fiction develops, a writer has the exhilarating experience of losing options, of saying ‘Of course!’ to things that emerge on the page with an aura of necessity to them”. That “of course” means you have followed the logic of your story, and boxed yourself into a place where there is no other way of carrying on or concluding the tale. I would guess that Kirsty Logan found herself at that “of course” moment, when the book seemed to have come right.
The Gloaming, by Kirsty Logan, Harvill Secker, £12.99