The Language of Waves!….
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
………’I have sea foam in my veins…. I understand the language of waves’ From Le Testament d’Orphee, a film by Jean Cocteau
The island. Selkies. A mermaid. These are at the heart of The Gloaming, the second novel from Scottish author, Kirsty Logan. The island is a place of the everyday and the mystical, where the sparse population live out their days until they feel the end of their lives is near – then they climb to the cliff by the sea and before they reach the edge they turn to stone and become statues.
Among the island’s handful of inhabitants is Mara, one of three siblings living in a rambling house where her parents have taken the family to live and to shelter from the harshness of the outside world. Her parents are Peter, an ex-boxer who has suffered in the ring and Signe, an elegant dancer who has a hint of mystery and magic about her. But although moving to the island was meant to be a way for Peter and Signe to retreat from the battering of everyday life and to protect their children from its cruelties, tragedy has caught the family even on the island. Mara’s younger brother Bee has been taken by the sea and Mara herself has been left mentally and physically scarred by the accident, leaving her to retreat into herself.
'To be a mermaid, you need three things.You need hair. You need a tail. And you need to know how to breathe.............
Peter and Signe have vague ambitions to repair and restore their ramshackle home to its former glories and to make it a guest house to attract visitors to the island – but in reality, they are mired in grief eking out an existence until their own time comes to climb the hill to the cliff. Mara’s sister Islay has left the island in search of something different. Mara seeks solace and comfort in the arms of books which she discovers what had once been the island’s mobile library, now abandoned but preserved in the peaty hillside
Into this grief, abandonment and loss comes Pearl, a girl from the sea. But this is no ordinary girl. For Pearl is also a mermaid, sometimes a working mermaid on cruise ships and in Las Vegas hotels between trips back to the island. Pearl and Mara fall in love, and Mara can also recover and live as a mermaid with Pearl, but to make that step she needs to get the courage and confidence to leave the island and she needs to get her sister to return to care for the ageing Peter and Signe.
The Gloaming is a wonderful, beguiling, story mixing the everyday and the fantastical. The island is home to selkies, mermaids and other magical creatures and at the same time there is everyday life of a girl pouring pints in the local pub and the local shopkeeper drafting up the island’s regular newsletter. Where this comes together is in Mara and her family – they have a mysterious and tortured past which they are all coming to terms with in different ways until Pearl arrives and transforms each of their lives in different ways. At the same time as she opens Mara’s eyes to love and to the possibilities of life beyond the island, she threatens to take their one remaining child from Peter and Signe.
For a Scotsman reading and reviewing this, I can’t pass up the chance to mention the wonderful chapter headings throughout The Gloaming for Kirsty Logan has used a huge range of Scots ‘words’ – so you’ll find chapter heading with titles such as Toty, Hame, Telt, Dram, Clype, Stramash, Drouthy, Scunnered and my own personal favourite, that delightful Scottish word for those who might not be the sharpest tools in the proverbial shed, Glaikit!!!!
As she did with her previous book, The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan’s story focuses on the balance between land and sea and between real life and magic. This is a difficult balance to strike but in The Gloaming, it’s brilliantly done as she holds the magical realism back just enough to make it believable and likeable, while at the same time the everyday gritty reality is used sparingly to make sure it never swamps or overwhelms the fantasy and the imagination in Mara and Pearl’s life.
I’d loved Kirsty Logan’s debut novel The Gracekeepers so much that I’d been slightly anxious that The Gloaming would be the literary equivalent of the ‘difficult second album’ in music…… but it was a misplaced anxiety. The Gloaming is fantastical and fantastic in equal measure, every bit as good as that debut novel, and for me, marks out Kirsty Logan as a very special writer. Ordinarily I’d have said magic realism wasn’t rally my ‘thing’ – but if it’s going to be as beautiful, clever and well-written as The Gloaming is then it might just become my ‘thing’ after all.
The Gloamng by Kirsty Logan was published by Harvil Secker in 2087. I bought my copy with my own hard-earned dosh.
As Kirsty Logan is a Scttish writer, there were a few reviews in the Scottish press including this one by Alan Massie in The Scotsman which you can read here. If you’re interested in reading a little bit more about Kirsty Logan I’d recommend her own website here, where you’ll also find a podcast discussion between her and her editor about the novel. And if you’ve not read it, I’d also thoroughly recommend her previous novel The Gracekeepers – more land and water tension and just as magical!