Category Archives: Books

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

‘Ordinary things,’ the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, ‘have always seemed numinous to me.’ Jon McGregor may not share Robinson’s preoccupation with the divine, but there are few writers whose work has more consistently affirmed the luminous dignity of the everyday. His debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, took as its subject an unnamed city street and the inner lives of its residents. Panoptic and quietly rhapsodic, its very title seemed to announce his intentions as a writer. ‘If you listen, you can hear it,’ it began. ‘The city, it sings.’

And sing it did. There was no shortage of beauty in this early work, though its painterly effects tended at times to eclipse its characters, presenting not so much human interactions as exquisite tableaux vivants. McGregor has long since learned to temper these excesses, honing his lyrical gifts and yielding the foreground to his characters. His growing stature has not gone unrecognised. Longlisted twice for the Booker prize, he won the Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2012 for Even The Dogs. Even by the standards of his mature work, however, McGregor’s latest novel is a remarkable achievement.

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Set in an unnamed town in the English midlands, Reservoir 13 seems at first to tread familiar ground. A young girl has gone missing, and in the darkness of a midwinter morning the search is beginning. ‘It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked.’

The missing girl, Rebecca Shaw, had been on a family holiday and had formed only a few tenuous friendships. In the photograph that is circulated her face is ‘half-turned away’. She is remembered variously as ‘Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’, an elusive and prismatic presence in the town’s collective consciousness. Most people hardly knew her, but rumours are repeated. Stories are told. Spring arrives, and still Rebecca has not been found.

Life goes on. It is a comforting truism, something we tell ourselves in the aftermath of shocking or inexplicable events. Yet to a writer of McGregor’s particular gifts, the banal can present invigorating challenges. Life does go on, undeniably, but how? How do we absorb events like these, and how do they alter us?

To answer these questions, McGregor returns to the broad social canvas of his first novel, but his undertaking here is far more ambitious. The author himself posted a partial dramatis personae on Twitter that ran to eighty-odd entries. Many are recurring characters, not fully developed in the usual sense, but skilfully realised nonetheless. They emerge in glancing encounters, the narrative’s perspective slipping unobtrusively among them. The effect is cumulative and subtle, leaving us with a precisely calibrated sense of familiarity. These are people we might see on the school run, or speak to while queueing at the post office. We can only glimpse their inner lives, guess at their secrets.

At times the narrative drifts apart from human company altogether, pausing to observe the foraging of fox cubs or to mark some small increment in the progress of the seasons: ‘The sun cut further into the valley and under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil.’ Descriptive writing of this kind is often praised for its ‘arresting’ beauty, yet these passages are remarkable precisely because they do not halt the reader’s momentum. Indeed, McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference. Fluid and fastidious, its sparing loveliness feels deeply true to its subject. There are moments, as in life, of miraculous grace, but no more than that.

There is beauty, likewise, in the moors and in the beech woods that surround the town, but this is no mere idyll. Here too the life that persists is driven by animal necessity. Unfledged blackbirds are taken by crows. Goldcrests feed in the churchyard yews. We see summers end (‘the butterflies rose like ash on the breeze and the ice-cream vans still appeared’) and winters encroach again (‘the sheep were nicotine-yellow against the fresh snow’). The missing girl is spoken of still, as the years pass. There are occasional ‘sightings’, though these are no longer taken seriously. She recedes in the town’s memory, but never quite vanishes. Suspicions arise (as when a school caretaker is found in possession of child abuse images), that may come to nothing.

It is a mark of greatness in a work of art that its effects, though profound, are not easily accounted for. Reservoir 13 is not a crime novel, at least in the traditional sense, and its central mystery is more than just a procedural puzzle. We do not come to know Rebecca Shaw, but we feel in the end that her life has been given a solemn and particular weight, its traces documented until they are too faint to be seen. In her absence, the swallows come and go. People marry or move away. There are moments of sadness, of squalor, of indelible beauty. Look, this humane and tender masterpiece is saying. This is what becomes of us. This is what remains. Life goes on.

Reservoir 13 is published by 4th Estate.

The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes

This review originally appeared in the Guardian.

Since A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the 1990 Booker Prize, we have seen a recurrent vogue for novels in which contemporary and historical narratives are interleaved. It is a device that has been put to many uses, but it has proved especially attractive to writers who, like Byatt, are given to flourishes of erudition and who are drawn to its potential for formal experimentation. One manifestation of this has been a trend towards increasing complexity, leading to the emergence of what might be termed the ‘novel of ingenuity’, whose proliferating timelines (as in the recent fiction of David Mitchell) provide the readiest index of its ambitions.

chmcr9iucaaaituThe Countenance Divine contents itself with four, interweaving a near-contemporary narrative with three distinct historical strands. In 1999, introverted computer programmer Chris Davidson is shoring up rickety software against the ‘Millennium Bug’, a doom that now appears impossibly quaint. It is a humdrum existence, described in an oddly affectless tone: ‘Chris liked his job. It was hard work and the hours were long, but he was very good at it.’

But Chris, we quickly realise, is not quite what he seems. On a whim, he buys a strange wooden puzzle from a market trader. As he tinkers with this ‘Practical Rebus’, he is plagued by strange thoughts: that he has been alive for hundreds of years; that the city is on fire; that he has been chosen for some special purpose.

At the office, Chris keeps up appearances. As the millennium looms and fears of economic and civil chaos grow, he beavers away on lines of neglected computer code. His inner life, however, is in turmoil, and his visions have taken a frankly apocalyptic turn: ‘The world was about to end, and it was all his fault.’

Before it can, though, we find ourselves in the London of 1888, amid the livid horrors of the Whitechapel murders. Taking the infamous ‘From hell’ letter as his starting point, Hughes presents a cache of imagined correspondence by the same hand, in which the putative Ripper gives his account of the remaining murders and alludes, in darkly cryptic terms, to his instructions from a ‘Mr Blake’ (who has, incidentally, made him a gift of a now-familiar ‘puzzle toy’).

This sequence, though disturbing, is a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. Hughes (who has worked for many years as an actor) has an exquisite ear for diction, and for all the dismal savagery of the acts his Ripper recounts, it is the coarse verisimilitude of his verbal tics that makes him truly terrifying. ‘Ile set you down on the ground,’ he writes, ‘nise and gentle.’

The Ripper’s ‘Mr Blake’, it transpires, is none other than William Blake. We encounter him in 1790, as he laboriously engraves his own tiny print run of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (whose formative visions, to preserve his satisfying chronological schema, Hughes locates in 1777). Blake, too, is brought to life with extraordinary assurance. We are shown not only the fervent visionary, but also the playful Dissenter and, less familiarly, the mercurial but tender husband.

Hughes has done his textual scholarship too, though he stitches it into his narrative without undue showiness. Blake’s visions, for instance, are announced by ‘a hot, gnawing chatter in his toe’, a detail that echoes his epic poem, Milton, in which the spirit of that revered poet enters Blake’s body by way of his foot. Similarly, when the remains of Milton are disinterred (and here, again, Hughes hinges his tale on historical events), Blake secures possession of one of his ribs, fashioning from it a homunculus in which Milton is, rather wearily, reanimated. This is every bit as outlandish as it sounds, yet it is, to be fair, a thoroughly Blakean outlandishness (homunculi were apt to appear in his engravings), and such are the verve and conviction of Hughes’ vision that we accept it with hardly a raised eyebrow.

In 1666, meanwhile, a blind and disconsolate Milton is racing against time to see his great epic published. Though he is no longer in immediate danger, the Restoration has left him with few friends. Unlike Blake, the convictions of his youth have deserted him, and his dream of an English New Jerusalem is in ruins. His prophecies have not been forgotten, however, and those who cling to them are now scheming against him. In the ashes of the Great Fire of London, we begin to glimpse the grand design that is unfolding across the centuries.

All of this may sound rather daunting; this is, it must be said, an intricate and densely allusive novel. Yet for all the seriousness of its meditations on literary heritage and millenarian theology, The Countenance Divine is never less than superbly stimulating. It is a debut of high ambition that marks the arrival of a considerable talent.

What the Spellchecker Saw: Sarah Perry

I wrote a blog post some time ago in which I revealed the list of words I had added to my spellchecker’s dictionary while writing The Maker of Swans.

I was reminded of it when I saw this tweet from Sarah Perry. In a spirit of fellow feeling, I sent her a link to the piece. She might find it diverting, I suggested. Or distressing. Because these things can go either way.

To my delight (and, if I’m honest, much as I had hoped), Sarah was prompted to produce a list of her own, compiled during the writing of her wonderful novel, The Essex Serpent, which will be published in June. I’m reproducing the list here with Sarah’s permission.

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In my earlier post, I tried to describe what I find peculiarly fascinating about these word lists. What’s crucial, I think, is the peculiar mechanism by which they are created, this quiet salting away of eccentricities. The words we store in this way aren’t a representative sample, exactly, or not in the usual, statistical sense. But they are, like certain kinds of light, obliquely but starkly illuminating. You see things, etched in shadow on certain October evenings, that are all but invisible in the staring brilliance of a summer noon.

They are outliers, these words, much as we may gripe at their omission from Microsoft’s dictionaries. They are cherished oddities, hoarded for their rarity, their special lustre. And they are precious, of course. They are precious in the precise sense of being irreplaceable. Not one of these words could have been exchanged for any other.

But why these words, in particular? Poring over my own list felt furtive and radically unsavoury, like drinking my own wee. But since these are Sarah’s choices, the whole thing is above board. I can sit hunched over the specimen case for hours, sighing in contentment or hissing in envy. I can get my notebook out. I can classify things.

In some cases (like daybright or blueflowered), they are nonce words, neologisms borne of some small semantic or prosodic necessity known only to Sarah. There were (we must imagine) occasions when, discovering some minute fissure in the edifice of the language, she discerned the precise contours of the word that would fill it. Darking. There. Perfect.

Others, like the delightful unciform (an anatomical term meaning ‘hook-like’) and ergotism (poisoning induced by fungus-infected cereals) are truly obscure, words whose meanings we discover with a little throb of glee and carry away, Smaug-like, to deposit atop our glittering piles. All of these words, though, are in some degree out of the ordinary. They are archaic or bookish, fanciful or folkloric, impressionistic or clinical. They are excessive, in the very best sense of the word; they are the traces a writer left as she strained at the boundaries of everyday language.

Of course, the novel isn’t full of words like these; if it were, the effect would be unbearably cloying. In fact, they are stitched into its fabric with such unobtrusive care that I had no recollection of having encountered some of them. Nonetheless, this list is uncannily faithful to the book, a distillation of its essence.

The main character in The Essex Serpent, Cora Seaborne, is a remarkable creation. She is a restless and passionately curious autodidact. She is an amateur naturalist, in the Victorian tradition, and an inveterate collector of fossils. She is a widow, and zealously protective of her new-found autonomy, and yet she falls in love — extravagantly and inconveniently — with a recalcitrant country cleric.

Cora will become, I suspect, a widely beloved character, for these qualities and many others. And perhaps it is Cora, in particular, who is so immediately and vividly summoned by this list, Cora’s impatient and questing nature, her devotion to reason and inquiry, her joyous heterodoxy of spirit.

I was lucky enough to read a proof of The Essex Serpent a few weeks ago. If I hadn’t, though, this list alone would have done it. This list, more than any blurb or review, would have made me long to read it, to inhabit this world of verdigris and oakwoods, of samphire and lapis lazuli.

Now that I have, I can only offer my heartfelt commendation. The Essex Serpent is all of these things and more. It is a treasure, this book. It is daybright and noctilucent. It is starlike.

 

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

This review originally appeared, in edited form, in The Spectator.

It is the fate of the second novel to be measured against the debut that it follows, a fate that becomes inescapable when that debut is met with acclaim (Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize) or is held to exemplify some modish literary subgenre (‘gritty Scottish realism’, in Fagan’s case, a designation that was not only modish but also largely invented).

The Sunlight Pilgrims - CoverFagan was ill-served, in this regard, by reflexive comparisons to Irvine Welsh, which made much of her use of profanity and dialect. But whereas the strenuous transgressiveness of Welsh’s style has long since descended into shtick, Fagan’s coarseness of language, to the extent that it was remarkable at all, was never more than surface detail. It was clearly in the service of authenticity of voice, and never subsumed her intentions in the way that Welsh’s has. Anais Hendricks, the disturbed but resilient protagonist of The Panopticon, is memorable for much more than her readiness with swear words. Far more noteworthy, for instance, was Fagan’s rigorously unsentimental and richly illuminating treatment of vulnerability and mental illness.

When eleven-year-old Stella Fairbairn, the central presence in The Sunlight Pilgrims, lapses into vulgarity, she is half-heartedly discouraged by her mother, Constance, who resorts (in a wry gesture by Fagan) to keeping a swear jar. Unlike The Panopticon, which imagined a contemporary dystopia of dysfunctional care homes and squalid flats, The Sunlight Pilgrims evokes a bracingly plausible near-future (the year is 2020) in which climate change has lurched into a terrifyingly acute phase: there is snow in Jerusalem; an iceberg is looming off the Scottish coast.

If a recurring preoccupation is evident, it is with the inner lives of the marginalised in the shadow of vast and indifferent forces. Stella, we learn, was once a boy named Cael. Her transition, though supported by the valiant and resourceful Constance, has not been entirely untraumatic. She is subjected to horrific bullying and institutional callousness. Denied the hormonal treatments she needs and unwilling to contemplate surgery, she struggles to construct for herself an attainable ideal of femininity. In a deeply touching scene, handled by Fagan with characteristic lightness of touch, Stella watches online porn featuring a trans actor. There is nowhere else, she reflects, where she can see ‘a body like her own having sex’.

Stella and Constance are joined in their caravan park by Dylan, who, until their recent deaths, ran an arthouse cinema in Soho with his resolutely unconventional mother and grandmother. Dylan is cast adrift, both by his grief and by the encroaching crisis. As the cold intensifies and the news is filled with intimations of social collapse, these three are soon entwined in unlikely domesticity, finding in it the nearest thing to salvation that this intimately imagined and chillingly credible apocalypse has to offer.

 

The Sunlight Pilgrims is published by William Heinemann.

There Are No Rules

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Irish Times.

When you publish a novel, there are certain questions that come up a lot.

What’s your book about? What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

In my case, at least, these questions have identical answers: there are no rules.

That sounds monstrously adolescent, I realise, but bear with me. I can explain. My book, without giving too much away, is about a young girl for whom there are no rules. As for advice, I don’t have any. In fact, there isn’t any, or none that matters. There are no rules.

I don’t mean that I’m special or exceptional. I’m just speaking from what little experience I have. And I did everything wrong, basically. Everything, right from the beginning.

26It’s not as if I didn’t know any better. When you’re writing a book and trying to get it published, one of the first things you discover is that there’s no shortage of advice on the subject. There are lucid primers by reputable publishing professionals. There are candid and only gently chiding self-help manuals by veteran writers. There are impassioned but violently illiterate online screeds by—well, it can be hard to tell. Plus, I wasn’t really paying attention.

And there is a lot of this stuff. No, really. There is a corpus of received wisdom so gigantic that it would take many lifetimes to traverse it in its entirety. Luckily, you don’t have to. You can ignore it, all of it. There are no rules.

No, honestly. I did everything wrong. You’re not supposed to approach an agent until you’ve finished your novel. That one is practically a commandment. Well, I approached an agent before I’d even started a novel. I asked her to hang on for a bit while I wrote one, and it was fine. Granted, she didn’t like it when it was finished, but if I hadn’t put myself in such a spectacularly awkward predicament, I’m not sure I’d have produced a novel at all. And anyway, the next agent I showed it to did like it, so it all worked out in the end. No one died. There are no rules.

But, but, but. You’ve got to follow the submission guidelines. And your query letter has to be flawless. And it’s vital to format your manuscript correctly. And so on.

Look, here’s thing. The query letter is just an email. You have to send it to the right person. You have to include the right information and write it clearly and so on. You know, like a competent adult. You don’t need rules for that. And yes, you do also have to write it in such a way that you don’t appear deranged or unpleasant, but you don’t need rules for that either. You just need not to be deranged or unpleasant.

The same goes for the manuscript. Are you good at writing? No, I mean, properly good, not ever-since-I-was-little good? And have you read lots of books? Well, you’ll be fine, then. You’ll know the sort of thing that happens in them, and what they’re supposed to look like, with the paragraphs and the dialogue and what-have-you. So, you know, just write one of those.

And by ‘write’, of course, I mean ‘type’. It’s not a Sumerian epic. You type the book like a normal person, you make sure there aren’t any spelling mistakes and you save it in the document format used by literally everyone alive. You don’t need rules for this stuff. Seriously. This is just what people do. There are no rules.

This applies to the writing too. In fact, this applies especially to the writing. Take Elmore Leonard’s oft-cited ‘rules’, for instance, which have now acquired something approaching the force of doctrine. It helps, of course, that these ‘rules’ are themselves unshowy gems of aphorism: ‘Never open a book with weather’; ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’. Nice. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

For the record, Elmore Leonard is a writer I revere. His ‘rules’, like everything he wrote, are a source of delight. What many people seem to miss, though, is that they aren’t rules at all. Leonard read widely, we may be sure, and in many genres. He knew better than most that any rule you care to formulate has any number of glorious exceptions. He even says as much, in the article in The New York Times which sets out his ‘rules’, but people don’t tend to quote those parts.

The point is, a writer of Leonard’s subtlety, humour and humility doesn’t take it upon himself to make unironic prescriptions for the entire literate world. His ‘rules’ are a wry codification of his own style, nothing more. And that style, for all its miraculous grace and levity, is just that: Leonard’s style. There are no rules.

So, yes, I did things wrong. Sometimes, I admit, I did so on purpose, just to see what I could get away with. At the beginning of my book, a character is woken from a dream. (There’s a rule about that. You can look it up.) There are even gunshots. (They don’t ‘ring out’, though. Having no rules doesn’t mean having no taste.) I don’t know whether I did get away with it, but if I didn’t it was because of my own failings, not because I broke a rule.

I introduced elements of the fantastic in a work of literary fiction. In fact, I hardly left any out. I used alternating points of view (readers hate that), and switched between the past and the present tense (readers really hate that). I set the book in unnamed places, and interleaved two historical periods without identifying either of them. A pattern may be emerging here.

I tried very hard to create a satisfying story, but there were things I refused to explain because explaining them would have killed them. I worked with the utmost care, and with an unremitting consciousness of my duty to the reader. I wrote everything – every single line – over and over again, many hundreds of times, to get it closer, to get it as close I could. I tried.

But I took certain liberties too. I allowed myself certain excesses. I had no choice, not with this story. There is great art that dignifies the ordinary passages of our lives, great art whose workings are quiet and unceremonious, and I have nothing but respect for it. But we live other lives, each of us. There is something else, always, just beneath the skin of daylight. Don’t you feel it? There is a lifelong singing, a secret rhapsody, an elsewhere to which we also belong. We must honour that too, in our art. We must try to be true to it.

This is why I did everything wrong. This is why it was necessary. And I know how it sounds, believe me, but I can only explain it in this way. It was an act of love, this thing. It was a slow convulsion, an episode of rapture. When that comes, you obey it, and you obey nothing else. There are no rules.

The North Water by Ian McGuire

An edited version of this review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

For as long as there have been novels, there have been novels of the sea. The eponymous hero of Robinson Crusoe, widely regarded as the first novel in English, is all but synonymous with the figure of the island castaway. Yet it is as a ‘mariner’ that he is introduced in that novel’s full title, and he undertakes not one but two ill-fated voyages before the one that leads him to his desert island.

51EM8LFgjRLFrom Defoe, the lineage of maritime fiction can be traced almost without interruption to the end of the twentieth century (the last complete novel in Patrick O’Brian’s much-loved Aubrey-Maturin series appeared in 1999), though its apotheosis, many would argue, was reached in 1851, with the publication of Moby-Dick. Among readers, clearly, there is an abiding appetite for tales of the sea, but that alone can hardly account for a continuity of tradition that has few if any equals among literary genres (military fiction, despite some superficial similarities, has had a much bumpier ride).

This longevity, surely, is due at least in part to our fascination with the sea itself, and in particular to its hold on the imagination of authors. For novelists, the sea is the gift that keeps on giving. For a start, there are its attractions as a setting. The sea, after all, does what no landscape can: it moves. One moment, it may be nothing more than scenery, while the next it is an inexorable force, sweeping mere human fates before it.

The sea can be much more than a backdrop, then, but it can also be less. For some writers, the sea is a canvas of seductive blankness, a surface from which the clutter of civilised existence has been scoured. Against such an emptiness, the dramatic force of a narrative is magnified, lending heroic proportions to its struggles. It is the latter approach that Ian McGuire favours in The North Water, a muscular but finely-wrought tale that satisfies traditional expectations while bringing to the genre a dark elegance of style and an unsparing vision of individual morality.

We are introduced first to Henry Drax, an itinerant harpooner animated only by his own savage compulsions and sustained by an implacable instinct for survival. He joins the crew of the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the Arctic. Her captain is complicit in a murky enterprise – we learn early on of a plot to wreck the ship for insurance money – and is not inclined to be choosy about who he takes aboard. This suits Drax nicely: He has just murdered and violated (in that order) a young boy and wishes to make himself scarce.

Also boarding the Volunteer is Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon whose military career ended in disgrace during the siege of Delhi. For Sumner, as for Drax, an Arctic whaler is a place where few questions will be asked, where his misdeeds may go undiscovered. Unlike Drax, however, Sumner is burdened by his past. Although his moral instincts have been somewhat corroded, he is nonetheless deeply preoccupied by notions of wickedness and culpability. Drax, on the other hand, is untroubled by any such distractions. For the harpooner, ‘each new moment is merely a gate he walks through, an opening he pierces with himself’.

The stage is set, then, for just the kind of elemental confrontation that tradition demands. From the beginning, too, it is clear that it will take place amidst a sizeable cargo of philosophical baggage. Here again the precedents are well established; seascapes have always provided a canvas not only for grand struggles but for big ideas. But whereas Moby-Dick looked to Locke and Kant, the colours nailed to the Volunteer’s mast are unmistakably Nietzschean; even her name, with its echoes of volition and the will to power, seems slyly allusive.

In fact, the novel alerts us to its intentions in its opening words: ‘Behold the man’ (Ecce Homo was the title of Nietzsche’s final eccentric summation of his philosophical project). The man we are invited to behold is Henry Drax, and he is not a pretty sight. A creature of ‘fierce and surly appetites’, he is bestial and unreflecting in pursuit of his urges, yet he is capable too of dim epiphanies. His atrocities, he believes, are acts ‘of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations’ and he himself is a ‘wild, unholy engineer’, insights that remind us of Nietzsche’s ‘free spirits’, those ‘investigators to the point of cruelty’ who have dispensed entirely with obsolete notions of good and evil.

But while its philosophical ambitions are at times overt, it would be wrong to give the impression that The North Water is weighed down by its big ideas. As a storyteller, McGuire has a sure and unwavering touch, and he has engineered a superbly compelling suspense narrative. Like Dr Stephen Maturin, Patrick O’Brian’s rather more upstanding ship’s surgeon, Sumner struggles to keep his nose out of the opium bottle. Once at sea, he holes up in his cabin, minds his own business and sets about depleting his own medicine chest. Drax is quick to take his measure, and soon guesses at the shadows in surgeon’s past. Sumner, though somewhat addled, is not entirely oblivious. When a cabin boy is found murdered and sodomised, Drax pins the blame on one of his shipmates. Roused from his torpor by the horrific nature of the crime, the surgeon sets about uncovering the truth.

The Volunteer and her crew, however, are soon overtaken by greater misfortunes. The plan to wreck the ship goes predictably awry, and when it does the crew must contend not only with the monster in its midst, but with the far greater brutality of the long Arctic winter. As the body count rises, the tattered morality that Sumner clings to begins to look forlorn. ‘Them’s just words,’ Drax tells him. ‘The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer.’

As a stylist, too, McGuire is never less than assured. Though he keeps he keeps the prose lean for the most part, he allows himself occasional flourishes. While these occasionally misfire (the dockside air, perplexingly, has ‘a bathetic pong’), there are many instances of arresting brilliance. A musket shot to the head produces ‘a brief carnation of blood and gore’; a bear that Sumner pursues is lost in ‘the blizzard’s ashen iterations’.

The North Water is traditional to the last. There will be a sole survivor, of course, just as only Ishmael survived the destruction of the Pequod. It is by no means clear who this survivor will be, however, and the well-tuned plot keeps us guessing until the final pages. But McGuire’s deference to tradition is not excessive. He has produced a fine addition to the maritime canon, but one that revivifies it with a thoroughly modern acuity of style. He has established himself, too, as a writer of exceptional craft and confidence, one who is no doubt capable of approaching other genres and of making them entirely his own.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

This review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

We have come to expect more of nature writing than we once did. It tended, until recently, to come in handsomely produced and gift-friendly volumes, and to take a gently contemplative and often lyrical approach to its subject. It tended, too, to be the preserve of writers of a recognisable type (male, donnish, faintly druidical), leading the poet Kathleen Jamie to deride the cult of the ‘Lone Enraptured Male’.

theoutrunAll that changed, of course, with the phenomenal success of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. While it was not without its precursors (Olivia Laing’s To the River, for instance, charts a similar confluence of personal and natural currents), its influence now seems inescapable. Macdonald demonstrated that nature writing can be passionately erudite and beautifully observed, but also viscerally intimate and inseparable from the rawness and disorder of our lived experience. Like Macdonald, who returned to falconry following a bereavement, Amy Liptrot approaches the natural world by way of the personal, fusing nature writing with a stark and moving memoir of addiction.

The child of southern migrants, Liptrot is raised on a farm on the Orkney ‘mainland’, as the largest of the islands is known. Like all incomers, they are regarded with benign scepticism by the locals. Orkney is an unforgiving place to establish a smallholding, and most southerners don’t last long. The family makes a go of it, however, and the childhood Liptrot sketches is for the most part wholesome and contented, if not entirely cloudless. Though her parents are loving and hardworking, her father suffers from manic depression and is prone to unpredictable behaviour. Her mother seeks solace in religion and joins a group of evangelical Christians. They will later separate, for reasons that are typically contested.

On the islands, the elements breed sturdiness. As a child, Liptrot ranges fearlessly over the ‘wind-scoured and treeless’ expanse of the farm, scrambling over its stone dykes and skirting its plunging cliffs. By the time she is eighteen, though, she has grown resentful of the muck and toil of life on the farm. Feeling the adolescent’s sense of confinement, even under the limitless Orcadian skies, she yearns for ‘the hot pulse of the city’.

London doesn’t disappoint. She falls in with a loose collective of friends. They are young or youngish, scraping by on the fringes. They talk about getting into publishing, making it in music or fashion. There are warehouse parties in Soho and Shoreditch, nightclubs that vanish within weeks of opening. There are drugs, of course, because this is London and they are young. And there is drinking. There is a lot of drinking.

These sequences are especially vivid. Liptrot recalls her early excesses with the wary nostalgia of the recovering addict, and evokes them with a kind of blurred intensity. A solvent-fuelled picnic in London Fields, is a welter of ‘limbs and sun cream and honey and ants, all sticky and sweet’; she feels the urge, walking home after a party, to ‘rub the city onto my skin…to inhale the streets’.

But this idyll of hedonism is short-lived. Liptrot’s drinking is out of control almost from the beginning, and her life in London soon lurches towards chaos. Her boyfriend moves out (she had, she reflects ‘squeezed the last love from him’), and she is unable to hold down even the menial temping jobs that have sustained her. Exhausted and despairing, she enters a recovery programme. Six months later, bruised and aimless but tentatively sober, she is home in Orkney.

Alert to their familiarity, perhaps, Liptrot dispenses with these preliminary events in eighty pages or so. There is the risk of tedium, too, in chronicling the subsequent stages of recovery. For the alcoholic, sobriety is a lifelong project. The addiction narrative, having traced the upward portion of its arc, threatens to peter out in a perpetually provisional blue sky. It is a challenge that must be overcome not only by the narrative, but by the recovering addict. What is life to consist of, now that it has been so thoroughly emptied out? How are all these days to be filled?

Back in Orkney, the emptiness is not merely metaphorical. ‘The sky gets bigger,’ Liptrot observes, ‘as the train travels further north.’ She seeks refuge in a cottage on the island of Papa Westray (known as ‘Papay’), a place even more northerly and remote than the island where she spent her childhood. The house is uninsulated, perched on a narrow strip of island and exposed on two sides to an often tumultuous sea. ‘It will be impossible to live here,’ she notes, ‘without being aware of the weather.’

For all its bleakness and isolation, Liptrot feels at home here. It is this intimacy with the elements, she begins to realise, that will form the basis of her salvation. Like many recovering addicts, she is eager to find new objects for her displaced compulsions. The islands themselves become her obsession; she studies their weather, their history and archaeology. At night there are the riches of the unpolluted northern skies. She becomes fixated on ever more northerly islands, travelling to Fair Isle and battling her way up the ‘preposterous ski slope’ of its Sheep Rock, as if obsessed by the very idea of extremity.

These digressions are engrossing in themselves, but we begin to glimpse a unifying vision. Although Liptrot’s style is superficially stark, eschewing the lyrical excesses derided by Kathleen Jamie, it belies a quiet relentlessness of ambition. With her almost manic attentiveness – to ocean currents, to cloud formations, to the processes of erosion – Liptrot seems intent on absorbing nothing less than an entire environment, in all its vastness and complexity. In the aftermath of an all-consuming addiction, there is something consoling, perhaps, in this sense of totality.

Recalling a photograph taken during her lost years, Liptrot reflects that she appeared ‘unfathomably, unquenchably sad’. Drinking was never the answer, of course, and the solace she sought for so long was always illusory. There is no answer, of course, but as this humane and compelling memoir shows, there are far more interesting questions.