I missed Amy Sackville's first novel (lovely cover but the subject didn't quite grab me) I could not however resist something titled 'Orkney', especially as it's also set in Orkney and promised allusions to selkie myths. George Mackay Brown is probably the best known Orkney writer but he's by no means alone either in terms of being home grown talent or an inspired visitor - Orkney is rich in stories and history. When you visit the history is close to the surface be it in the form of the Italian Chapel, Maeshowe, or any and everything in-between - it's an invitation to story telling and myth making as is the sea - George Mackay Brown's 'ocean of time'.
Richard is an ageing professor; at 60 he's not quite elderly, but the signs are all over his body - joints ache, skin is papery, hair greying, toe nails horned and monstrous, and now there's a very young woman in his life. A brilliant student who seems to be interested in him. She has silver hair, pale skin, and slightly webbed hands and feet. Richard is quickly obsessed, trailing around in search of this creature who appears and disappears without seemingly without warning. Perhaps in an effort to pin her down he asks her to marry him and she agrees to it.
Richard is also a Tennyson scholar, well aware of the poetic irony of falling for a woman 40 years his junior, and the folly of old men blinded by lust - but he remains powerless against his wife's charms - and so at her request they set off for a frequently in Orkney where she - we never learn her name - spends her days on the beach looking out to sea and he sits at the window watching her.
Initially Richard's narration put me broadly in sympathy with him, he's so aware of his ageing, and how open to ridicule the situation makes him, but also so hopelessly infatuated that he seems just as hopelessly vulnerable. Slowly though his behaviour becomes more menacing, possessive, maybe even violent. There are odd moments as when for example he holds his wife under the water of her bath at her request, or a night when the sex sounds suspicously close to rape. Richard rather gloats over the sex and that again erodes sympathy.
Word play is an integral part in this novel, Richard and his wife exchange strings of adjectives as a kind of game - some reviews see it as overwriting but I think it works in this context. It feels like a natural way for people who immerse themselves in literature to communicate, and also a natural way to describe a landscape like Orkney where sea, sky, and light are forever shifting - transforming a landscape which itself frequently melts into the rain or mist. Something else that I only really noticed about half way through is that when his wife speaks it's punctuated with inverted commas, Richards speech isn't marked at all which adds to a sense of dislocation from reality already created by the girls physical oddities and the couples relative isolation.
It's possible that she is entirely a figment of his imagination - we only see her through his eyes but even so she constantly throws doubt on his reliability as a narrator. As Richard tries to tell back the story of their relationship she keeps correcting him. He describes first seeing her on an autumn day in a 'purple sweater, the colour of heather on the heath...' she denies ever owning a purple jumper but also states heather blooms in spring - which Richard accepts - but heather is a late summer flower. I don't think this is a mistake; neither character is reliable.
I also think this is a book open to being the story you want it to be. This mysterious girl with a fascination for the sea could be a selkie child or more mermaid than woman; something otherworldly intent on seducing a human creature, equally she might be the victim of an older man's obsession, or again, and just as likely she might not exist at all and this is Richards reworking of all the stories he's worked with over his career. Or perhaps as in Edith Olivier's 'The Love Child' Richard has conjured a physical being from fantasy.
The reviews I've read of 'Orkney' are mixed. I think it works, and would go as far as to say it's a remarkable achievement - but you'll have to judge for yourself what you make of it...