Monday 1 November 2010


Ages ago I won Andrina and other stories by George Mackay Brown on Hayley's blog Desperate Reader. So enthused was she, and so keen that I read it, that I got it to the top of my pile in surprisingly quick time for me (putting this in perspective, I'm currently reading a book someone gave me over three years ago) - but then didn't blog about it, and now am looking back in my memory to see what I thought. As such, I'm probably more likely to give impressions about the book as a whole, rather than individual stories.

Every time I write about short stories, I say how difficult it is. The themes will be so sprawling, the characters so diverse, that trying to find a unifying voice is tricky. Hayley suggests, in her review, that GMB is drawn to 'time, tide, season, poetry, and faith' - which is pretty wide, but probably fairly accurate. From the beautiful island photograph on the cover of my copy, I was expecting something from the same stable as Tove Jansson - with chilly descriptions, unsentimental characters, lots about the minutiae of human interaction, etc. etc. So I was a little surprised when the first story was all about a whaler, with some quite wordy letters being sent to a woman with the improbable name Williamina. I can't say I was smitten.

But I persevered - and what I will say is that the collection is mixed, but mostly on the good side of that! George Mackay Brown is very interested in fables and legends, and the whole book feels a little as though it had been translated from Old Norse or Icelandic or a language with a similar oral tradition. What do I mean by that? I suppose it's his odd choice of language - the sort of things we encounter in Anglo-Saxon literature, with turns of phrase relating to the most primitive forms of existence. This can be incredibly effective - I especially loved this line:

Days, months, years passed. A whole generation gathered and broke like a wave on the shore.
On the other hand, for those of us who never read historical fiction - which I recognise is a failing in myself, not the genre - it sometimes grates a little. Or, if not 'grate', does wear a little thin occasionally... but only occasionally.

The title story 'Andrina' is one of the best, and one of the few which felt more in the traditional mould of beginning-middle-twist-end. If I had to pick a favourite story from the collection, it would be 'Poets', which is actually a group of four stories, set in different times and places, carefully displaying four poets (some creating written poetry; some more metaphorical). In 'The Lord of Silence' within this group, Duncan is a poet who never utters a word:
He grew up. He was a young man. He learned to hunt, to herd, to plough. He learned to drink from the silver cup, pledging his companions in silence. His father went once on a cattle raid into the next glen, and did not return. They managed to get his body from the scree before the eagle and the wolf made their narrowing circles. The women of the glen, who mourned in a ritualistic way, had never seen such stark grief on a human face: the mouth of Duncan opened in a black silent wail.
Maybe it is when GMB's own interest in poetry overrides, that I lose my way sometimes. As someone who has an admiration for poetry, but rarely an enjoyment, I think I was occasionally left on the sidelines with some of the stories. I could see that they were beautiful, and with many of them I could relish that beauty and engage with the characters, writing, themes - but with others I could only sense beauty, not feel it. There is no doubt that GMD is a talented and evocative writer, when he finds the right reader - and whilst I certainly wasn't completely the wrong reader for Andrina and other stories, which I'm very glad I've read, and mostly enjoyed - I think there could be ideal readers out there for whom this would be an incredibly special book.

1 comment:

  1. Really pleased to read your thoughts on this book Simon, and interested in many of your observations. Mackay-Brown is really immersed in the culture and history of Orkney which is close enough to my roots to be familier to me, I like the way you bring out the otherness in the book.

    Some of it is in the little details - things like Williamina - even a generation ago names like that were not uncommon but now they sound odd.

    I think you're right about the archaic feeling of the language too. I know Mackay Brown was deeply influenced by the viking saga's especially the Orkneyinga saga. I think it's a big part of why I can't finish any of his full length novels; it feels like too much by half way through.

    Finally... One thing that really surprised me when I was in Sweden a couple of years ago was how familier the language sounded without my being able to understand it, it was because the rhythm of it is still very similar to orkney and shetland dialects.

    It's been great to read someone else's thoughts on this book, sorry about the epic comment, and pleased you didn't hate it!


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