Orkney by Amy Sackville
Published by Granta, 2013
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Orkney is a quiet, claustrophobic look at an unconventional relationship, fuelled by Scottish folklore. Richard is a 60-year-old literature professor. His 21-year-old wife is his former student. Pale, silver-haired, enigmatic, and beguiling, she requests they spend their honeymoon on one of the wild and remote Orkney Isles.
Each chapter follows a day spent on the island. It has to be said that this isn’t a hugely plot driven novel. Events, themes, and ideas are explored in an almost cyclical way. To some, this may prove frustrating. For me, it created a sense of ebbing and flowing, like the tide against the island’s shores; of being suspended in time and place, as the characters themselves feel once cut off from society. Sackville’s prose is so beautiful, her sense of setting and atmosphere so evocative, that I was more than happy to spend extra time in the book’s lilting grasp.
Richard is a storyteller, in several senses of the word. He is spending a sabbatical working on a book about female figures from myth and legend, and it becomes increasingly clear that the line between these fictional women and his real wife is very much blurred. Projecting his fantasies onto her, she remains nameless throughout his narration, presented instead as an impossibly idolised vision that she could never live up to; her version of events constantly contradicting that which he presents to us. Whilst it could be argued that the writing is overly flowery at times, it ties in perfectly with Richard’s desire to embellish and beautify the truth into something greater or more pleasing.
Ultimately, the book explores love, obsession, possession, and loss. There’s an air of mystery surrounding Richard’s wife. Who is she? What is her past? Why is she simultaneously drawn to and afraid of the sea? With Richard’s mindset ruled by his fascination with her, and her stifled sense of self reflected in her recurring nightmares of drowning, it becomes interesting to consider who holds the greatest power and influence over the other.
If you’re aware of the stories the novel draws from, there’s a sense of inevitability with regards to where the story is heading, and indeed, Sackville employs much unsettling foreshadowing throughout. But this adds a melancholic tone and a sense of mounting tension to the whole thing that really worked for me. With such a deft and subtle use of (possible) magical realism, and Richard established as a wildly unreliable narrator detached from reality, the end can be interpreted in several very different ways, at once tragic, chilling or hopeful, depending on your reading of the text. It’s one I would love to discuss with people!
If you’d like to read Orkney, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly on the ending!