Orkney, by Amy Sackville
Years ago I went with a client to the Buddha Bar in Paris. It was filled with overweight ugly men in their forties and older, each paired with one or more beautiful young women none beyond their twenties. I commented how romantic it was that love had somehow managed to bypass such barriers of age and attractiveness, and left quickly.
Cross-generational relationships aren’t always so cynical. It’s easy to see though how even if the couple got together for less mercenary reasons there can be serious imbalances of power and experience.
In Amy Sackville’s Orkney, Richard, a sixty-year old literature professor, is on honeymoon with his twenty-one year old bride, formerly his star student. Richard is the narrator, everything we see therefore we see through his eyes.
Richard is using the honeymoon to work on a book about depictions of magical women in 19th Century literature. His wife has seemingly stepped from his pages, silver-haired with webbing between her fingers, a selkie, mermaid, finwife or other improbable mythic creature. She is enchanting, and he is willingly enchanted. She spends the days on the beach watching the sea, he spends them writing by the window, watching her through its frame. She exists within his gaze.
All those subtle serpents and slippery fishtailed maidens I have been trying to get hold of; for now it seems foolish to labour over fairy-tales when out there on the shore I have one of my own. I sit quietly here, adding to my endless index of her, observing as she becomes a silhouette.
The cover is a fair representation of the book. Amy Sackville isn’t so far as I know a poet, but this is still very much a poet’s novel. The language is beautiful and dense, at its best when describing the constantly shifting Orkney sky and seascape (“the sun was setting, pale yellow like chilled, smooth-churned butter behind new pleats of cloud.”). It’s so beautiful it’s almost claustrophobic. The style lends a dreamlike quality, making it oddly enough a very good book to read when very tired.
Initially I took the narration at face value, and as a result found it slightly irritating. Richard’s new wife was a bit too perfect, beautiful, free-spirited, a creature of the sea unburdened by a past, passionate in bed at night and demanding little during the day.
She is Protean, a Thetis, a daughter of the sea, a shape-shifting goddess who must be subdued; I hold her fast and she changes, changes in my grasp … But I am no prince and cannot overwhelm her; she will consent to marry but goes on shifting no matter how tight I grip. Her hair falling like a torrent of water in which her fingers flick and twist. I dabble in her shallows and long to dive the depth of her. She is a tiny, perfect, whittled trinket found bedded in the sand, carved patiently, for comfort; she is a spined and spiky urchin with an inside smooth as polished stone, as marble; she is a frond of pallid wrack, a coral swaying in the current, anchored to the sea-bed; she is an oyster, choking on grit, clutching her pearl to her. She was my most gifted student, and now she is my wife.
Slowly however I started to realise that I was taking Richard’s descriptions a little too much on faith. She has no past, or at least Richard doesn’t know her past, but how much has he asked? Does he actually want to know what led a 21 year old to marry someone who could conceivably be her grandfather, or would he rather not look too closely at this dream made flesh? In a way it’s very convenient for him that she’s some faery-creature, because the alternative is that she’s a human being with her own thoughts, desires, goals. If she’s not part of his narrative, she can exist without him.
As the novel progresses, Richard’s habit of watching her through the window as he writes becomes less romantic and perhaps more controlling. When one day he can’t see her he becomes distraught, hunts for her. When he finds her she says “I’m sorry I moved beyond your frame, Richard,” underlining (perhaps a little too obviously) how keen he is to deny her independent existence.
Later in the novel he reminisces with her about their first meeting, but they disagree about what she wore. It irritates him, he prefers his stories unchallenged – “it is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone, while she is in her bath, and not here to interject with her nonsense about not wearing purple.”
If Richard’s wife seems at times unreal it’s because she is, she’s blocked from view by Richard’s fantasy of her. He’s mythologised her, defined her by reference to his own comfort zone of belles dames sans merci and in doing so has denied her her own reality, an act of control even if it is born of adoration.
Richard wants to possess her, not merely physically but completely. He can’t help being aware though that, with forty years between them, when he’s dead she’ll still be in her prime. He can’t bear the thought – “Oh, it is unfair, it is unjust – that there she will stand, by the graveside, grieving, still existing when I am gone and cannot watch her, and some boy on the edge of the graveyard can.” He becomes increasingly jealous, the more she spends time beyond his frame the more unbearable he finds it:
Now that I am alone, I can only think of [various men on the island, none of them challengers] and of all the other men who have known her or met her or even seen her once and of those who will have her when I’m gone. Of her father and all the secrets she hasn’t told me; I haven’t her future or her past either.
Orkney then becomes a narrative of control. Richard’s descriptions of his wife contain nothing of her inner life, and when that shows through it discomfits him. The novel isn’t unsympathetic to him, he’s not a monster, but at the same time there is something ultimately slightly claustrophobic about his need “to own just some small part of her, for a moment, entirely.” He’s made of her a sea-foam woman, but the problem with that is the more tightly he clutches at her the more she starts to slip from his grasp.
William Skidelsky, in an excellent review in The Telegraph, here, criticised the ending as perhaps a bit predictable and I think that’s fair. As the book reached its final quarter I started to have a pretty good sense of where it was heading. That’s a small (and perhaps unavoidable) flaw though in an otherwise excellent novel.
Starting out, I hadn’t expected to like Orkney as much as I did, I only really read it because I’ve long wanted to visit the Orkney islands and the idea of a well written novel describing the territory was appealing. What I got though, a description of a relationship seen entirely through an idolising male gaze, was much more interesting than I’d expected and the language written in prose “sometimes luminous, sometimes obscure” is a delight.
I’ll end with one final quote, just to give one final sense of Sackville’s use of language and in particular here her use of the rather wonderful word “mizzling” (plus it has a rather well chosen Eliot reference, slightly foreboding to those familiar with The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock).
The seals are out today, looking unhappy in the mizzling rain. Sad sacks of taut skin, occasionally craning their heads and flopping back down again, disconsolate. Although they seem to look unhappy in any weather; tearful, fearful creatures. We have often seen them out, barking, each to each;
Orkney has been very widely reviewed. Two I’d particularly pick out are by the rather wonderful Bookslut, here, and by the no less wonderful Words of Mercury, here. That second review is the one that pushed me over the edge to trying the book, so thanks Alan. On a separate note, there’s a wonderful website on the fascinating folklore of the Orkney islands here which definitely merits a visit.