Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Orkney.
Writing as if her pen were a sable paintbrush, Sackville draws a vivid portrait of the isolated Orkneys,
where her embattled heroine--a waif of a soul who pleads with her new husband, Richard, to take her up North, fulfills her nostalgic and romantic wish to return her to windswept birthplace. Richard, a literature professor, is working on a great compendium of enchantment narratives in the nineteenth century. It's not surprising, then, that he sees his new wife as some kind of maiden in the tower, imbued with a sort of ancient fairytale curse.
Like Thetis, a daughter of the sea, “a shape-shifting goddess who must be subdued,” this young woman is fully aware of her salt-of-the-earth lineage. All the more important for Richard--forty years her senior--to hold her fast as she literally changes within in his grasp. From the moment he meets her when she stumbles into his lecture theater,
she seems to possess an “other-worldly” quality.
In a tale that fluctuates between the earthly and spiritual worlds of Richard’s mind, the angst and the reality of his precious circumstances are as sharp as the jagged rocks of the cliffwalks where his muse wanders, isolated and troubled. In her ethereal first-person narrative, Sackville portrays Richard’s sudden obsession: he clearly loves his new wife, but he’s plagued with the belief that some “Kraken, dripping slime and black ooze” will infect her with a “fin-de-siecle fever” and take her from him forever.
Sunlight glints on white sand, the sea sapphire blue and the sky clear but for a “glary thickness.” Sackville paints Orkney in gorgeous brushstrokes, a beautiful yet barren, mystical place. Safe within their rented cottage, the dark sea pounds outside as Richard becomes increasingly infatuated. Apart from occasional visits from the local housekeeper, the couple are left alone. Precious hours of their honeymoon are lost in stories as they listen for echoes in this misty landscape where the scrubland competes against a world of subtle serpents and slippery, fishtailed maidens.
Myth and legend play an integral part in Sackville’s intricate fantasy. The much-younger wife steps into the sea by day, almost a vision of her father, at least close enough for a girl longing for his return. Plagued by nightmares of being trapped in shipwreck,
she waits for the sea to swallow her again as night descends and the sun rises, and her morning’s strange antics contain a dream and a game easily forgotten.
As Sackville’s symbolic prose draws the reader into the yearnings of a lonely man’s heart, the sea, wind and rain buffet and pummel the rocky coastline. This girl waits and wishes for love from Richard, perhaps the only man who can give her the salvation and deliverance she needs. There’s a brush of a kiss and a tentative dinner--maybe she’s a willful, scheming, vengeful soul who enchants with her immortality and her willingness for love?
While the plot sometimes belies belief, the events take place within a single week, the novel remaining a poetic peon to love betrayed, a young woman's angst, and the desperate, heart-wrenching luminosity of her wounded, elderly warrior.