Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Valley at the Centre of the World - Malachy Tallack

It took me a long time to read this book, and I've spent a few more weeks thinking about it since. The reason it took all that time was because I was so overwhelmed by what it was, that it took some catching up getting to what it was about.

The Valley at the Centre of the World is set in Shetland, specifically a single valley and looks at the lives of the people who live there. There's Maggie, who is old - and who's death (this isn't much of a spoiler, it's the first thing that happens in the book) is a sort of catalyst. Middle aged David and Mary, and Sandy who has stayed in the valley after splitting up with David and Mary's daughter, Emma who has left. Alice, an author who has settled there after the death of her husband, Terry who comes and goes, and Ryan and Jo.

There is an Amy Liptrot quote on the cover of my proof copy that describes it as "a moving, authentic novel of the Scottish Islands in the twenty-first century", which it is, though I think it's more specific than that. Broadly most of the issues that Tallack takes on apply to plenty of remote rural communities across the Highlands and Islands, but each island group, each island has its own character. Shetland is distinctly Shetland, it's close to my heart, and there's not a lot of contemporary literary novels that explore it. (Crime writing is a different matter, but the focus is neccesarily different.) The point I'm slowly getting to is that I hadn't quite realised see how much I wanted to be reading about the things Tallack is writing about, or how few and far books that look at these landscapes, and these people, are.

Not a great deal happens in 'The Valley at the Centre of the World' happens. People come and go, make decisions, or fall into them, and generally get on with there lives, but there's a huge question underlying the whole thing - what is the future of these communities?

It's another question close to my heart. Maggie represents a generation bound by tradition and a close relationship to place. David is bound by the same things, but his crofting is a lifestyle made possible by the jobs and prosperity of the oil years. It's more than a hobby, but it's no longer a neccesity. For the younger generation it's a world full of choices and possibilities, with far fewer ties to place and tradition.

What happens to communities like this as expectations and opportunities change has repercussions that spread far beyond the local. As old links are broken, and places empty, or new people move in, language and culture change, stories are lost, and other sorts of knowledge too. Is that good, or bad, or something inbetween? We get to draw our own conclusions here, but again, these are fundamental questions well worth asking, and they apply to any community of any sort.

I know from reading '60 Degrees North' that Tallack has a sometimes complicated relationship with Shetland, something which he explores thoroughly here, but particularly through Sandy, Emma (through her absence) and Ryan. Ryan especially seems to represent things he has the least affection for. And now I find I'm falling back down a rabbit hole of what aboutery as I consider other characters and aspects of the book.

In the end it was an immensely satisfactory book to read, regardless of personal connection to the subject matter there's a lot here for anybody to consider. If I had a criticism it might be that there are a few to many things covered, more than enough for a second or third novel (particularly Sandy's parents, they could easily have filled a book by themselves).

I sincerely hope that Tallack does write more Shetland based fiction, I also hope that a few more follow him in writing about life from the perspective of similar communities. There's a need for books like this, especially ones as good as this, that draw sensitive, un romanticised, portraits of rural life where nothing nasty happens in the woodshed/out on the moors and nobody is necessarily holding on to a devastating secret. I might not have known how much I wanted to read books like this before it came along, but now I do, and I'll be looking for them.


  1. Great review, have put on my wish list, thank you.

  2. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, I think it's a tremendous achievement and a brilliant portrait of a place.