The first I heard of Amy Sackville’s second novel ‘Orkney’ was a paragraph-length mention in a book on the folklore and legends of Great Britain. The writer of the folklore book described Orkney as ‘over-written’ for the most part, and mused that the main female character became overly fey and annoying as the book went on. However, her synopsis of the plot and the inference that the novel was a sort of contemporary re-working of the selkie legend piqued my interest.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the selkie, this legend revolves around a magical being that spends a lot of its time as a seal but occasionally comes ashore, takes off its seal-skin and becomes human. In this form, selkies can (and supposedly did) have relationships with human beings and even bore children. But always, in the end, the selkie returned to the waves, the “sea-longing” becoming too strong for them to bear.
As the title suggests, Amy Sackville’s novel takes place in an archipelago famous for its selkie legends; Orkney. The book is narrated by Richard, an eminent literary professor in his sixties, who has come to one of the islands on honeymoon with his beautiful young wife (who just so happens to be a former student of his). This wife, whose name we never discover (rather like the young protagonist of ‘Rebecca’) spends a lot of her time on the beach gazing out to sea, or fossicking for shells and other interesting things, rather like a child. Almost right away it becomes clear that there is something a little odd about her. She is fey and rather child-like, and keeps having vivid dreams and nightmares about the sea. Even her looks are rather unusual; she has long silver hair and webbed fingers and toes. Nevertheless, the islanders who encounter her seem more aware of her eeriness than her new husband, who is obviously enthralled by the youth and beauty of his wife, only fearing that one day she will find him too old and repulsive to love.
The novel’s tragic denouement can be easily guessed almost from the opening pages, but that doesn’t make Orkney any less enjoyable to read. The recounting of the couple’s honeymoon, with its nightmares, revelations, mundane activities and explorations of the island, is artfully interspersed with flashbacks to the couple’s earlier days, including their wedding. The reader’s sense of the young wife’s oddness is reinforced throughout the book. She seems to have no friends, no family, except for a father whom she refuses to say much about, and when Richard remembers details of past experiences, even how they met, she keeps contradicting him. Then there are all those watery nightmares, and the subsequently strange obsession she has with the sea.
As a result, the ending is no surprise; but readers will surely feel its haunting sorrow no less, for the character of Richard has become so sweetly familiar that we cannot help but pity him and wish that things could have turned out differently.
While Orkney’s supernatural element is never blatantly exposed, and some loose ends are never satisfactorily tied up, the book is nevertheless a beautiful, enthralling and delightful read which will appeal to anyone with a taste for the strange and the numinous. It is also an exquisitely drawn portrayal of desire, romance and the tribulations of an age-gap relationship, and for all of these reasons I would highly recommend it as your next read.