Thursday, 25 April 2013

Ring of Bright Water - Gavin Maxwell

You know how I don't shut up about Miss Hargreaves?  (Have you read it?  It's great.)  Well, Hayley is (in a rather better mannered way) equally enthusiastic about Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water.  Since Hayley and I often enjoy the same books, I've been intending to read it for ages - but every copy I've stumbled across in charity shops has been rather ugly.  I wish I'd seen the beautiful cover pictured.  When Hayley lent me her copy (as part of a postal book group we're both in) I was excited finally to read it.

Well, I say 'excited'.  There was a part of me that was nervous - because I rarely read non-fiction when it's not about literature, and I have no particular interest in wildlife rearing.  If it didn't come with such a strong recommendation from Hayley, I doubt that I'd ever have considered reading it.  And I would have missed out.

Gavin Maxwell doesn't really structure Ring of Bright Water in a traditional beginning-middle-end sort of way, which I imagine the film adaptation probably does - it isn't encircled by the life of any single animal, or his occupancy of his remote Scottish home, but instead meanders through many of Maxwell's countryside adventures.

I'm going to concentrate on the ones which made Ring of Bright Water famous - the otters - although (cover aside) you wouldn't have much of a clue that they were coming for the first section of the book, which looks at the flora and fauna of the middle of nowhere in Scotland, and such matters as whale fishing (Maxwell is strongly against, despite having run a shark fishery - there is a constant paradox between his love of his animals and his killing of animals).  The only cohesion (and it is quite enough) is that it's Maxwell's opinions and voice, and connected with marine and rural life.

And then the otters come along.

The first otter only lives for a day or two, but after that comes Mij.  He is really the star of Ring of Bright Water, and the high point in Maxwell's affections.  I can't give any higher praise than to say that someone like me, interested in the animal kingdom chiefly when it concerns kittens, was entirely enamoured and captivated, and briefly considered whether it would be practical to get a pet otter.
Otters are extremely bad at doing nothing.  That is to say that they cannot, as a dog does, lie still and awake; they are either asleep or entirely absorbed in play or other activity.  If there is no acceptable toy, or if they are in a mood of frustration, they will, apparently with the utmost good humour, set about laying the land waste.  There is, I am convinced, something positively provoking to an otter about order and tidiness in any form, and the greater the state of confusion that they can create about them the more contented they feel.
Er, maybe not.  Maxwell sets out to tell you how incomparable the otter is as a pet - cheerful, companionable, spirited - and only slowly does he reveal that they are completely untameable, very destructive, and occasionally (if repentingly) violent.

But Mij is still a wonder - or, rather, Maxwell is a wonder for the way he tells his story.  He is certainly a gifted and natural storyteller, and the reader is easily lulled into similar levels of affection towards Mij, and a complicit sympathy with Maxwell (and never for a moment what a novelist would subtly ask - that we would pity the loner, or wonder at his isolation.)

I don't want to spoil the high-jinks (yes, high-jinks - and tomfoolery, mark you) of the book, and I don't think I can capture Maxwell's tone - so I will give my usual proviso for books I didn't expect to enjoy so much: read it even if you don't think you'll like it!  (And if David Attenborough is your bag, then you'll probably love it even more.)

It is a beautiful book, for the rhythm and balance of its prose alone, quite apart from the topic or the setting.  I'm really pleased that, years down the line, I've finally taken up Hayley's recommendation - even if she had to lend Ring of Bright Water to me to make that happen.

15 comments:

  1. I found a copy at a library sale just a day or two after reading Hayley's post about it - which is still on my TBR shelves. The film was just on the other night again - it shows up regularly on the classics film channel, and I watched a few moments of it, just to see the otter.

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    1. I don't know if I can cope with the film, but I'm really intrigued to see how they got an otter to do what it needed to do...

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  2. I've never read it either - but otters are water-cats, so what's not to love about them. Lovely review too.

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    1. Excellent point!

      And thanks, Annabel :)

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  3. The thought of you considering adopting an otter made me grin hugely, and added to my delight that you enjoyed ROBW. I've admired Maxwell since I was a child and read all his writing avidly (not just the otter books). He may have been difficult and a loner, but he was immensely charismatic - which I think comes across in his writing - and drew people to him. I met him once and was instantly enslaved, would have run away from home to be an otter keeper, except for an awareness that teenage girls were really not an acceptable addition to the menage!

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    1. Charismatic is such an excellent word for what he is, Jodie! Yes - that definitely comes through in his writing. Nobody else would be able to get me thinking about adopting an otter!

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  4. I've never recovered from seeing the film as a child and howling my head off at the end - not sure if I am strong enough to read the book!

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    1. The book is moving in places, but I doubt it's quite as heart-rending as the film (which I have to admit I haven't seen). The deaths come with lots of warning, and aren't sensationalised...

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  5. Simon,

    I read the book as a young teenager years [many] ago. It had a great impact on me ... the isolation, landscape, Scotland, otters, weather, relationships ....... which has lasted all this time. I enjoyed exploring the north west coast of Scotland several years later and almost relived the book. I hope you get as much from it as I did.

    Richard.

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    1. How lovely when a book has had such a long impact on a reader! I love that, thanks for sharing Richard.

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  6. Ithought I had left a comment but it seems to have vanished so here goes again. I read this book when I was about 12 and loved every bit of it. Had me in tears as well. One of my all time favourite books

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    1. I didn't remember that, Elaine - but of course, I am not surprised that we enjoyed the same book :)

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  7. I used to love this book when I was a young teenager & I still admire the writing. However, over the years, I've become more & more disturbed at what happened to the poor otters. It's obvious in retrospect that so much of their destruction & aggression was caused by the frustrations of wild animals being forced into roles in which they couldn't indulge their natural behaviours. We now know so much more about the damage that captivity imposes on wild creatures & these were, essentially, captive. Being hand reared, they couldn't survive on their own in the wild & sadly, [spoiler alert] Mij's tragic end was caused by his habituation to humans. A wild otter would never have approached a human so trustingly; & Maxwell simply didn't consider the consequences of what would happen if Mij came into contact with someone who wasn't as dewy eyed about otters as he was. The other incident which disturbed me greatly was when Maxwell confined the female otter to a small enclosure (having previously allowed her to roam freely) because she bit him. Imagine what that must have been like for the animal. I suggest some reading about otters in their natural habitat will lead to a return read of this book which will make you very uncomfortable.

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    1. Good point! You kinda get swept away with his enthusiasm and (as Jodie wrote) charisma, and forget to analyse these things... although I was pretty horrified by the box that the otter had to travel in, which was essentially a coffin.

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  8. For anyone who would like to know more about Gavin Maxwell, his books, or books by other people who knew him well, there is now a Facebook Group "The Gavin Maxwell Society." New Members welcome!

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