Malachy Tallack’s first novel is serious, low-key, humane, nothing showy about it. You might call it old-fashioned, but really, or more accurately, it isn’t so much old-fashioned as out of fashion. There’s no fantasy or whimsy about it. No reviewer will praise it as “ludic”. Its characters aren’t the author’s playthings; they are made and treated with sympathy and respect. Low-key as it is, this respect makes it a life-affirming book.
It is set in a valley on the west coast of the Shetland Mainland, a valley of crofts, less populous than it used to be. David has lived there all his life, and is steeped in its lore; his wife, Mary, came from Edinburgh, and made her home happily in the valley. He looks after his sheep, but for years he worked in the oil-terminal too, and Mary was a primary school teacher. Nobody makes a living from crofting.It may be a good life, but neither David nor the author is sentimental about it. Both know it is hard. One of David and Mary’s daughters lives, married with children, in Lerwick, the other, Emma, came to a house in the valley with her boyfriend Sandy, but they have now parted and Emma has left. But Sandy has stayed. David wants him to remain and offers him the croft he has just inherited from the valley’s recently deceased oldest inhabitant, Maggie. For Sandy, who works part-time as a taxi-driver, it’s a chance to put down roots; he has had too little sense of belonging since his mother walked out of their home when he was seven.
The other main character, Alice, is an incomer, also wounded. A successful writer of crime novels, she came to the valley after her husband’s death. She is no longer writing crime.Instead she has been compiling – slowly – material for a description of the valley – its past, its flora and fauna, and its way of life today. Perhaps it can be in some way held together by the life-story of old Maggie.
The novel moves quietly, exploring, sifting experience, until there is one violent – but accidental – scene near the end. One of its themes is the nature of responsibility. David, who represents the moral centre of both the novel and the valley, worries that there will be no new families with children who will keep its traditions and way of life vital. His own daughters have after all moved away. Sandy is the son-in-law and father of his grandchildren that he might have had, but, while liking David and grateful to him, Sandy finds his constant concern irksome. It’s not half as irksome, however, as the surprise return of the mother who had deserted him, now proclaiming her eagerness to make amends and start again.
Tallack has a fine feeling for the landscape and tone of Shetland, its often cruel weather, when gales drive rain in from the Atlantic. He is a careful and precise writer, alert to the rhythms of speech, making good and rightly sparing use of the Shetland dialect which, as he says,is not only widely spoken but “hugely important to the character and culture of the place”. Any reader who finds this difficult or disconcerting at first should turn to the Note on Language and brief glossary at the back of the book.
The novel gives the impression of having been long pondered, and matured in memory and imagination. Consequently the characters have what seems like an earned vitality. In its evocation of island life it invites comparison with George Mackay Brown’s Orkney stories, especially those in the collection A Time To Keep, and Iain Crichton Smith’s novels set on Lewis or in Argyll, and it does not suffer from this. Given that Mackay Brown and Crichton Smith were two of the best Scottish writers of fiction in the second half of the 20th century, a first novel that sits comfortably alongside their work is a considerable achievement. Tallack has already won praise for two books of non-fiction, but I am pretty sure there will be more novels to come.
The Valley At The Centre Of The World, by Malachy Tallack, Canongate, 292pp, £14.99