March 2013

Jessica Henkle

fiction

Orkney by Amy Sackville

An aging professor spends his career teaching the great stories of enchantment, and when he marries his star pupil and takes her on a honeymoon to the barren Scottish coast, he starts living one of his own. Thus begins Amy Sackville's Orkney, a brooding, hypnotic novel that draws upon a panoply of folklore to tell a modern tale of love and obsession. While on vacation, the professor intends to work on a book about myths, but he finds himself unable to concentrate, pulled away from his writing and toward his young wife, who spends her days staring out at the ocean. He says, "Her view is encompassed by mine; it is not merely the sea that I see, it is the sea that she is seeing. Something at last takes the empty place at the centre of my perspective." But how much does he know about this woman he has wed, and at what cost will he allow her to consume his vision?

It's a cliché, the seasoned professor running off with a student forty years his junior, but Sackville injects it with new life. The rapport between the newlyweds is spot on, their quick wits a perfect match. He says, "I lifted her and carried her to the door triumphant, reveling in her lightness and my own abiding strength. New wives, after all, must be lifted over the threshold. Like witches, so I'm told. She is an endlessly fascinating fund of such trivia." Theirs is "a marriage of the minds," the professor jokes, though the jest is only in part. Once on the island, he quickly falls deeper in love with her, saying, "Her voice mesmeric, monotone, as if speaking each flicker as it flared and died, as if listening to the crackle of her own mind kindling," and later, "It is a voice to be wrecked on the rocks for." Sackville nods to mythology throughout the book, and soon, the reader, like the professor, begins to wonder if there is not more to this young wife than meets the eye.

For one thing, she has nightmares, but not just any nightmares -- she dreams only of the menacing sea, of it coming for her, overtaking her, swallowing her until she drowns. She doesn't know how to swim, and so her love for the ocean is a blend of awe and fear, much like her husband's love for her. Every night, she bursts awake from her nightmares and reaches for him, desperate for comfort, and he willingly obliges. She then falls back asleep, and come morning, has no recollection of what took place in the night. He says, "These few nights I have spent with her, she has swum deep before I have even steadied my breath. And as she dreams her submarine dreams I lie beside her, a whale's carcass, a wrecked ship, a vast ribcage in the dark blue deep; and she is a tiny luminescent silver fish, picking me clean, in and out of all that's left of me, bare bones long since freed of flesh or rigging." Like the mythological lovers well learned, being under the spell of such a mesmerizing being does not come without its price.

Layers of mystery surround this woman. She asks to come to the island because it is the land of her birth, and she is perpetually trying both to escape her past and plunge into its depths. The professor says, "There is this extravagance to her always -- she wanders beyond reach, beyond meaning. I trace the moon on her skin and cannot understand it. I turn it over, like the paperweight stone in my palm: why did we come here? Is this far enough?" The novel encompasses fewer than two weeks of narrative time, but a lifetime's worth of longing fills the pages. The professor's constant striving to get a grip on his wife's mystique only makes him yearn for her more, and he says, "I know now what it means, to miss someone; for there to be a before and after, a without and a with; to have something to look forward to and so feel the lack in the hours between, the bitter-sweetness of anticipation [...] each single instant can never be commensurate to the constant want of her."

The longer they remain on the island, the more their separate obsessions grow -- hers for the ocean, his for her -- and the deeper the reader is drawn into the story. Sackville's slow pull is skillful to the point of uncanny, her pacing right in keeping with the characters' inner realms, as well as the strange land in which they are dwelling. The cold Scottish coast is a character in itself, its stormy seas and skies as moody as its inhabitants. When the island's weather grows more violent, so the professor's wife's eccentricities grow more extreme, and he becomes desperate to keep her safe. Despite his efforts, she retreats further into herself and beyond his reach, and as she sits outside in the storm, he remains indoors, helpless. He says, "When I think of her lying there on the water, I start shaking, as if only now I can feel it, the cold of the sea and the thought that it might take her, and the thought that she might let it."

Entrancing, intelligent, and as consuming as the obsessions it explores, Orkney is a novel to dive into with a lungful of breath. It examines the lengths people will go to for the ones they love, and how even these may never be enough. It questions perceptions of both myth and reality and the dangers of believing too whole-heartedly in either. Of his wife, the professor says, "She says they don't draw the same distinctions, here, between histories, stories and myths; she said this as if to an outsider, looking in." Like the professor, the reader, too, is an outsider looking in on a fascinating creature, who at once mystifies, terrifies, and enchants. The novel is as lovely as it is unsettling, as throughout, there flows a knowledge that what has pulled us in may also pull us under.

Orkney by Amy Sackville
Counterpoint
ISBN: 978-1619021198
224 pages