Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Orkney.
Sackville captures the magic of place, Orkney's wild "sea islands" on the northern coast of Scotland the setting for the honeymoon of a professor and his much younger wife. He thinks to mix work and pleasure, planning to devote some hours to his book, the culmination of his lifelong fascination with enchantment narratives, tales of "beautiful, terrible women. Vulnerable, lonely, cursed women. Strange and powerful women." Forty years younger than her husband, his silver-haired wife has requested this extreme location for their honeymoon—the place of her birth, though she admits to few memories of her youth.
The last of his line, the professor, or Richard—though his bride remains mysteriously nameless—is content that she claims no one as family, this star pupil turned spouse. His good fortune outweighs caution in presuming to ask for this beauty's hand in marriage. Conscious of the stares of strangers in passing, he cares not for their opinions, secretly thrilled to face the seclusion of a barren island surrounded by a raging sea. The two of them are alone but for the occasional intrusions of housekeeper Mrs. Odie, whose expression betrays her thoughts as she bustles through the cottage, sweeping corners, changing sheets.
There are others on the island, to be sure, others who seek the wild assault of sea against stone, but the professor is most content when these strangers keep their distance. He is irritated by those who assume conversation is amenable, who gaze upon his wife's cool beauty and natural curiosity with unearned pleasure. He realizes that he is in the throes of petty jealousy, but with each passing day his need grows more insatiable, whether intently tracking her movements outside the cottage, buffeted by wind, from his security inside, surrounded by his books and papers, or braving the elements to be at her side. Daily she faces the roiling sea, indifferent to him, but clings to him by night, hungry for comfort, trembling from nightmares of drowning. Her nighttime frenzies unleash his uninhibited lust, sweat-soaked couplings she seems not to remember in the morning.
Sackville doesn't name this enigmatic beauty, the object of the professor's fascination come to life on Orkney, a human enchantment to rival the goddesses of myth, the sea nymphs and selkies, objects of ecstasy and despair, life and death, reason and insanity. Her prose is inspired, ageless, the trembling bridegroom trapped between centuries with his mannered speech and gentlemanly ways, the careful, delicate touch that belies the savage hunger raging in his soul. Hard to imagine a future for these unlikely lovers, a return to campus where he is an elderly educational icon, she an object of curiosity caught under a bell jar. What modern, educated woman could thrive? Consider that it is she who chooses the destination of their trip to the site of her beginning—she, the very image of a goddess, who catches the eye of the elderly professor already in thrall to enchantment.
Locked together on an island, trapped in time, the sea calls. She listens as he hovers, watching, trapped in a withering body, narcotized by the ripe flesh of her youth, nature's insistent call to him the cacophony of tolling bells. Past and present come together, time stilled in the vortex of enchantment, the insatiable momentarily quenched. Sackville strides across the treacherous rocks with the bride she has created, plumbs the depths of despair with her professor. Meanwhile the sea pounds an insistent message, demanding its story.