‘He’d never felt that pull since he’d moved south. Not once. The pull, always, had been in the other direction.’
The Valley at the Centre of the World
By Malachy Tallack
Published by Canongate
By Robert Alan Jamieson
Published by Luath Press
When poet and novelist Robert Alan Jamieson was growing up in Sandness, a scattered community on the west coast of mainland Shetland, two elderly brothers and their two sisters used to live nearby in a rather unkempt croft. Its doors were often open for animals to wander in, and a single electric lightbulb was one of their rare concessions to modernity. They were kind people, always ready to donate when he came round collecting for charity. Yet when the last of them died, the people clearing the house found a stash of uncashed pension dockets.
Jamieson tells the story in Susan Kemp’s beautifully elegiac 2014 film Nort Atlantik Drift, which is based on his poetry book of the same name and which he made on a visit to the island to bury his father. His neighbours’ house is now roofless and crumbling, but that is hardly unusual. In the film, he points out two photos of the land round Grobsness, where his wife came from, that his father commissioned as a first wedding anniversary present. They show curls of smoke drifting up from crofts’ chimneys, roofs neatly thatched or tiled, the land ordered, marked, fenced, and working. Now those roofs, too, are gone, the house walls are crumbling, and the land has emptied of people.
I found myself thinking of Kemp’s film while reading Malachy Tallack’s debut novel The Valley at the Centre of the World, which has recently come out in paperback from Canongate. While its story is entirely fictional, it too is set on the west coast of mainland Shetland, in a valley of crofts that is now far less populous than it used to be.
Tallack’s novel is true enough to real life to spell out the inevitability of all this. Supermarkets are always going to kill off the village shop. Teens are always going to want to mess around on social media rather than hoeing the vegetable patch or mucking out the lambing shed. When they finish school, they’re always going to want the bright lights and the big city. As the old song (almost) says, How you gonna keep ’em down on the croft?
But what I want to look at here is the other side of that; at belonging rather than loss. Remember those Sandness siblings who didn’t cash their pensions? Mightn’t it have been in part because they already had what they wanted in their lives? And that first anniversary wedding present: what more loving one could there be than a photo of the landscape where your wife spent her childhood?
It’s a cliché of book reviewing to talk about a sense of place being so strong that it’s almost another character. Often, that’s an empty phrase and just means a description that might roughly square with Google Maps. But both Tallack – and, come to that, Jamieson himself in his excellent novel macCloud Falls, largely set in the wilds of British Columbia – need, for the purposes of their fiction, to make the land and its people far more central than that. And the challenge is real enough: how do you express that visceral love of even an unforgiving landscape so that it offers a credible counterbalance to the obvious appeal of an easier, more comfortable way of life? That’s a tough one, because unless you do, there’s no inherent tension, and yet the characters who love the land the most might well be the worst at actually expressing it.
In Tallack’s novel, the man who has to make that particular case is David, a father of two grown-up daughters who have now left home to live in Edinburgh and Lerwick. He was himself born in the valley, and he cannot bear the thought of it emptying.
Tallack does everything he can to dispel any notion that there is anything remotely idyllic about life in the valley: the work is occasionally bloody and invariably backbreaking, the wind is always “clawing” at one’s face, and the rain tends towards the horizontal. In such a cold, unforgiving land, flowers get shredded by the wind, and even when a lamb dies (eyes pecked out by birds, naturally) it is hard to find soil deep enough to bury it. For all that, though, the valley is fundamental to David’s whole life. It shapes his thoughts: “The slope of it, the tender fold of the land. Somehow it was mirrored inside him. It was part of him, and he could no more leave this place than he could become someone else.”
Now I should add that there is far more to Tallack’s book than this, but the depth of its attentiveness to the landscape is one of the things that most impressed me about it. And I could say exactly the same about Jamieson’s own latest novel, even though it also tacks on the even bigger themes of love, death and history.
In macCloud Falls, Jamieson follows an Edinburgh antiquarian bookseller recovering from cancer on what he reckons will be the last big trip of his life – following, about a century on, in the footsteps of a Shetlander called James Lyle, who settled in British Columbia, married a Nlaka’pamux woman, and became a key figure in explaining First Nations culture to western Canada.
Here, historical truth weaves in and out of fiction. Lyle is heavily based on James Teit (Teit and Lyle, geddit?), who was born in Lerwick in 1864 and who did indeed become a significant ethnographer. As he tracks down Lyle, the bookseller shows the reader exactly how the British Columbian valley in which Teit and Lyle both settled has changed too, how the colonists planted orchards and built stores and railways but also took away the land rights of its indigenous inhabitants.
But how effective can fiction ever be in showing the landscape as a palimpsest going all the way back to that time before the colonists came? Can we understand what being edged off the land meant to the First Nations “in this great wilderness where human beings held the littlest hold on the space they had cleared for themselves”?
That’s one of the challenges Jamieson has set himself, but he is well able for it, and there’s another scene in Kemp’s Nort Atlantik Drift film that shows just why. In it, Jamieson remembers how his grandmother used to complain that her own mother used words in the Shetland dialect that had fallen out of use in just a single generation. The tribal world of the remote BC valleys hasn’t quite gone, no more than Shetland dialect has, but Jamieson makes them both flourish again, the first in his novel, the second in his poetry. The fictional valley he is exploring in British Columbia, like the fictional one Tallack explores in Shetland, may be at the centre of a slowly vanishing world, but it is one that both authors make profoundly real.
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack is published by Canongate, priced £8.99
macCloud Falls by Robert Alan Jamieson is published by Luath Press, priced £9.99