I really enjoyed Amy Sackville’s debut novel The Still Point so when I saw a copy of her second novel Orkney on a stand in my local library, I picked it up straight away.
Orkney sees Richard, a literature professor in his 60s, and his student arrive on the island of Orkney for their honeymoon. As their time together on the island progresses, Richard watches as his new bride slips further from his grasp and he begins to wonder if he truly knows his wife at all. While this is the general plot of the novel, this brief synopsis doesn’t do this story of obsession and desire, possession and storytelling, justice.
Amy Sackville’s writing in Orkney is simply beautiful. The whole novel reads like an exercise in beautiful descriptions – each one is uniquely beautiful and evocative, richly and fully conjuring the sea, the sky, the weather, Richard’s wife’s dreams. Many of the descriptions had me reaching for a dictionary as Sackville used another word I wasn’t familiar with (which I’m not complaining about) and, when I would find the word’s definition, I’d realise that it was the perfect choice to capture what she is expressing, whether it’s the colour of the sky, the mood of the sea, or the time of day. However, there is too much description at times, as if it is being used instead of moving the story forward.
The story glides along slowly, almost intangibly, and nothing much happens. There are very few major plot points and I don’t feel as if I’d be able to give a detailed account of what happened in the book. Is this my fault as a reader? Or a fault of the book? Or is this the way the novel was intended? My perception of the book could have something to do with how I read it – I was visiting family at the time and so was only reading in short bursts when I was able – and I did find that when I had the time to read for longer periods, I felt more affected by the story and the surroundings, and more pulled into the couple’s relationship.
There’s a magical and mythical quality to this novel which I can’t quite put my finger on – Sackville’s writing perfectly matches this tone and feeling. The story also has a timeless quality – chapters mark the start of each new day, but it feels as if time is evasive throughout. For me, the ending of the novel is, paradoxically, both ambiguous and clear and I love this about the novel – it’s certainly had me thinking long after I’ve finished reading. I definitely want to reread this novel, and think the book would benefit from it, because I’m sure I missed things and there is more to discover and experience in this story.
The only major characters in the novel are Richard and his wife, which helps the book to mirror the sometimes claustrophobic nature of the couple’s relationship. The novel has a very strong sense of place and, at times, Orkney is almost a character in the novel too, with its own moods and personality, and in some ways it becomes intrinsically linked with Richard’s wife. And, while Richard narrates, it is she who is at the centre of Orkney. She is unnamed, elusive, mysterious, captivating, ethereal, and mythical – myths and stories play a large part in the novel, and at times, I wondered if she herself was a myth. She certainly has those qualities at times, but then a reality such as the exchanging of email addresses with a stranger for example, would sharply remind us that she is a real person and not only an object of Richard’s desire, a character in his stories or a figment of his imagination.
Orkney is a delicate exploration of a woman who can’t, and won’t, be possessed. You can certainly give a feminist reading of this novel: you have a man in his 60s who had resigned himself to the life of a bachelor, then he begins a relationship with a young woman. There’s an interesting difference in their interpretation and memory of events leading up to their relationship: in his mind, she was the seductress, the instigator. In her version of events, it was him who made the first moves. As the novel, and their honeymoon, continues she drifts further and further away from him – the more he tries to possess and obtain her, the further she moves away. In some ways, I’d have liked to have heard more of her voice but its absence added to her mythical, mysterious nature and it works very well in the novel. Her voice almost has no place here – Orkney is Richard’s tale of his new wife and his obsession for her.
Orkney is a book you experience, and one that leaves you thinking. I’m writing this review a short while after finishing the book, and the more I contemplate it, the more I am fascinated by it. The book has its flaws – while each of Sackville’s descriptions are unique, they can often evoke similar images; the plot has a loose structure which means pacing is a little slow at times – but Orkney is a richly layered tale that is beautifully written.
Have you read Orkney? What did you think?