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Apr 5, 2014

ORKNEY by Amy Sackville

"On a remote island in Orkney, a curiously-matched couple arrive on their honeymoon. He is an eminent literature professor; she was his pale, enigmatic star pupil. Alone beneath the shifting skies of this untethered landscape, the professor realises how little he knows about his new bride and yet, as the days go by and his mind turns obsessively upon the creature who has so beguiled him, she seems to slip ever further from his yearning grasp. Where does she come from? Why did she ask him to bring her north? What is it that constantly draws her to the sea?"

I've been reading a lot of British fantasy and mythology during my five months in the UK, and Amy Sackville's spare, haunting story, set on a Scottish island, spanning a two-week honeymoon, tapped into that mood perfectly. Richard, a professor of English Literature at work on a study of 19th-century enchantment narratives, calls his new wife “my Lamia” and “Merlin’s last folly,” referring to Keats’ and Tennyson’s tales of great men destroyed by the love of women who wear their unearthly beauty like a veil of mist about them.

I knew from the start that I was being bewitched by language wielded as a siren call, drawing me inexorably towards an unhappy ending, but it didn't matter - the prose in “Orkney” was so compelling that I read, not to find out what happens, but how it would be described.

Short on plot, but long on rhythmic prose and keenly observed poetic detail, this intimate portrait of the beguiling of an older man in a place where the waves “rush in iron-grey and unforgiving, like the cavalry of old wars" had me holding my breath from one page to the next.

"I told of Vivien, or Nimue or Niviane; the huntress, the sometime Lady of the Lake... I grew expansive, settling into the old routine, gesturing in the air above me as if casting grandiloquent spells, and she stroked, stroked at my temples, and it was I who was spellbound."

An in depth interview exploring Sackville's method and inspiration:


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