Amy Sackville’s magnificent Orkney, as slippery as the shape-shifting figure at its core, is the worst beach read I can imagine. It is set on the “loneliest, the rockiest, the most desolate island that has yet been mapped,” where the waves “rush in iron-grey and unforgiving, like the cavalry of old wars.” (Sackville’s previous novel, The Still Point, explored even more inhospitable, Arctic climes.) Everything on the island — its rocky beach, promontories, caves, cottages, inhabitants — is suffused with menace; even the seals frolicking just offshore come to pose a hazy threat, at least to the narrator’s besieged psyche.
The main source of entertainment is “naming the grey,” a challenge of how best to describe the island’s monochromatic palate. (“Cinereal” wins out.) Sleep provides no respite from the novel’s relentless intensity; each “submarine” dream is “washed through with seawater,” lurid tales of drowning and sea beasts from which one awakes “drunk in the sodden aftermath of…nightmare.” The action is filtered “through the dark brown fug of a whisky hangover,” not the enlivening glow of an afternoon daiquiri.
Orkney’s plot is as elemental as the surroundings. Richard, a longtime bachelor and professor of 19th-century literature marries his former student, a pale, strange thing with silver hair and webbed hands and feet. “Take me north,” the unnamed woman resolutely tells her new husband, and so they honeymoon to an unnamed island in the Orkneys where she was born. Once there, Richard works on his magnum opus, a book on enchantment narratives: “Transformations, obsessions, seductions; succubi and incubi, entrapments and escapes…and all the attendant uncertainties, anxieties and aporia.” Or tries to work. Rather, he spends all of his time sitting at his desk and obsessively observing his young wife — through a large glass window, through a makeshift telescope, through the lens of his mythic imagination: “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.”
His wife, in turn, spends most of her days observing the sea, to which she is irresistibly drawn despite her fear of drowning. She is forever at risk of being dragged under, by the sea, mermen, perhaps by her husband, even by her oversized cardigan, in which “it seemed she was being ingested by a seaweed-green monster with toggled buttons, against which she had long since given up struggling…” Fashion nightmare indeed.
Haunted though she may be, she is also a native creature of the island, unafraid to venture outside in all weather, effortlessly establishing conspiratorial relationships with its inhabitants (or so it appears to her suspicious husband), and occasionally pouring forth its “ancient language that she half-knows or understands.” As their roughly two-week stay unfolds, she hovers at the “edge of visibility,” more often than not a “smear” on the grey horizon for her sentry husband trying desperately to keep the insubstantial vision in view. “I’m sorry I moved beyond your frame, Richard,” she sarcastically remarks after he reprimands her for having wandered beyond her usual perch.
Richard is always trying to “prise” his elusive young wife open — her smile, her legs, her history. He compiles instead an “endless index” of his wife, which I’ve collected and will reproduce here lest anyone be looking for a new pet name for his or her significant other: little half-breed; Melusine; Thetis; daughter of the sea; shape-shifting goddess; barefoot urchin; frog princess; Queen Rose of the rosebud garden of girls; red-mouthed Virgin Lamia; faery queen; nymph; northern girl; Niviane; tricky capricious Ariel; clamped little clamshell; modern-day Venus borne in on the foam; Calypso; Circe; frond of pallid wrack; spined and spiky urchin; storm-witch; and little limpet. And yet despite Richard’s exhaustive inventory, she remains stubbornly indefinable, “a broken pile of tesserae that refuse to tessellate.” (In their erudition and grace, John Banville and Sackville strike me as comparable prose stylists.)
There is one charged scene in which, at his wife’s request, Richard forcefully holds her underwater to conquer her fear of drowning before “pulling her back into the world.” Exhilarated, she then pulls him down under into her “mysterious submerged” universe. The couple’s mutual abandon, violence, and desire get to the central ambiguity of the novel: who is enchanting or imprisoning whom? “So will you…bewitch me…? Will you leave your old teacher imprisoned, lost to life and use and name and fame?” Richard asks. To which his wife coyly responds: “Well…will you yield?”
If his wife is a kind of enchantress, Richard is something of an enchanter as well. She is initially drawn to him through the stories he tells in a literature class, and he goes on to essentially ensorcel himself, unconsciously embroidering their courtship tale with details that make her more elfin than she already is. This storytelling power explains the depth of his jealousy. Richard is democratically suspicious of any male, whether a vacationing teenager or a reeking hermit who drops in straight from a Wordsworth poem, but his real rival is his wife’s long since vanished father, who first awoke her sense of wonder with spell-binding tales of finfolk and selkies: “Nothing can replace those first tales, which have coloured the cast of her thought, which have filled her nights with the sea, and which are at least as real as she’s learned of the world since…Nothing I can tell her will ever sound in her so deep.” It is no accident that Richard is a scholar of the Victorians, those poets preoccupied with their own belatedness. Their dilemma was how to create enchantment in an industrial age, Richard’s how to counter the spells of his young wife’s more enchanting forbears.
Will Richard ultimately be left alone and palely loitering? The enchanted logic of the tale seems to demand as much, though the real mystery surrounding Richard’s wife begins at novel’s end: determining who or what she is — mermaid, enchantress, victim, figment — when “there is nothing left of her but an old man’s sigh.”