Richard is a literature professor writing a book about myths. He is madly in love with his new wife, who herself might be a myth. Here, in Amy Sackville’s second novel, the author stays just this side of the supernatural. But while our real, physics-bound world can mostly account for what occurs, Sackville also advances ancient fairytales as possible explanations.
Not that all that much occurs for most of the book’s 224 pages. Orkney unfolds over 12 days, in the form of Richard’s honeymoon diary. Our narrator, who is 60, has just married his 21-year-old former student, who remains nameless. Her hair is silver-white, her fingers and toes are webbed, and she’s a sloppy dresser, a messy eater, and a terrible cook—all hints (or are they?) that she’s not quite of this world. In any case, they do nothing to dim Richard’s ardor.
At her urging, they have traveled to the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland. She says she was born there, but left when she was very young and has little memory of the place. So they come to “surely the loneliest, the rockiest, the most desolate island that has yet been mapped, in this or any other water,” and rent a cottage on the beach. She spends hours sitting by the water’s edge and staring out to sea, while Richard watches her from the window. He tells the reader a bit of their backstory: how they became smitten with one another as student and teacher; how he finally summoned the courage to ask her out to dinner. And he gives a blow-by-blow of their days on the island: They go for walks, occasionally chancing upon Orkney natives or visiting birdwatchers; they sleep and dream; they drink whiskey, cook, and make love. Above all, though, she watches the sea, and he watches her.
Anyone who saw the 2009 movie Ondine by the Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan will be reminded of it early in Orkney. It’s not just that both book and movie borrow from folklore about selkies, creatures who swim in the ocean as seals but become human on land. Neither work initially lets on whether it’s intended to be understood as a fairy-tale or something more prosaic. For a while, it seems that Richard’s bride could just as easily return happily to urban academia with him or turn mermaid and carry him off to an undersea kingdom.
Ondine eventually tips its hand and becomes a clever real-world mystery, but Orkney remains ambiguous to the end. Stories are powerful if you believe them, it suggests, whether they are strictly true or not. Richard’s wife, for one, seems to believe in fairytales, or at least puts them on equal footing with reality. As Richard explains, “She says they don’t draw the same distinctions, here, between histories, stories, and myths.” Dreams, too, get great credence, with Richard’s bride hallucinating floods that make her wake up gasping.
If the couple’s life on the island appears tranquil, Richard is in tumult. He’s a happily doting husband at first, but grows increasingly obsessive as the days go by, becoming jealous when his wife talks to strangers and panicking if she disappears from view. He reels the reader into his place of exquisite pain, where he aches for her even when she’s near and a kiss “is sweeter still in memory for remaining unkissed.”
He is as much under a spell as any of the hapless heroes of the stories he’s writing about, comparing himself to “Calypso’s willing captive on Ogygia” and “Circe’s happy pig on Aiaia.” Even his own memory casts a spell on him, despite his being aware that he may have embellished it. In his treasured recollection of meeting his wife-to-be for the first time, she’s wearing a purple sweater and has leaves tangled in her hair. When he relates this to her, though, she insists that he’s mistaken, saying she has never owned a purple sweater. When she leaves the room, he muses that “it is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone, while she is in her bath, and not here to interject with her nonsense about not wearing purple.”
When Richard is not describing his inner state, he evokes the Orkney scenery in prose that can feel like poetry. This is very much a book for language-lovers, bringing to mind Marilynne Robinson’s shimmering debut Housekeeping, another novel set in a remote corner of the world afflicted by wild weather. There, the author found myriad ways to describe water and ice. Here, Richard revisits the colors of the sea and sky again and again: “The pale-blue tide is turning, now, roiling and foaming into boiling milk as it comes in,” he observes. He and his wife trade words back and forth like gemstones as they search for the perfect descriptor, their shared passion for language making their May-December love seem more plausible:
“Look,” she said, “there in the centre where it’s still: turquoise, emerald, and where the waves rise, the inside of them, dark, almost black, but . . .” Obsidian, I said. A sheen like cut stone. “Yes!” she said, “like an old knife.” And then when they peak, sapphire, “into azure, into aquamarine . . .”
If you don’t want to go to the Orkney Islands after reading this, you will at least have a vivid sense of their dark beauty.
Eventually, readers who like their beautiful sentences served with a helping of plot may start to wish that one of the ancient tales the protagonists tell each other would come true, just to move things along. Perhaps the one about finfolk, “tall, gaunt sea-farers with narrow faces and hard dark eyes,” notorious seducers who “come ashore sometimes, to seek new wives upon the land,” and who later return to reclaim the children they’ve fathered with humans.
At the same time, the reader may begin to dread the possibility that something might happen because he or she has come to share Richard’s deep sense of foreboding. Anything that occurs, it seems to his anxious and feverish mind, is going to fulfill his worst fears and cheat him of his longed-for future.
It would be wrong to reveal what happens at the end. But this is not, in any case, a novel about what happens. Rather, it’s an exercise in using language to weave a dream state. Amy Sackville spins a beautiful web, but even she doesn’t seem to know if she wants us to wake up.
Elisabeth Eaves is the author, most recently, of Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents.