It’s been a while since I’ve had such mixed feelings about a book. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by the Scottish islands and love books where that brooding landscape is so effectively portrayed that it becomes almost another character (Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series, Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, or Robert Mac¬far¬lane’s The Old Ways). This book does that. And having grown up hearing Scottish Gaelic spoken at home, I’m intrigued by the language and customs of the old crofters and fishermen. On the other hand, I’m only willing to wade through just so many pages of old Scots dialect (not Gaelic) to extract a story. As an example: somewhere in our school days many of us memorized the John Masefield poem which begins “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by . . . “ In Scots that becomes “Ah maun gang doon tae the sea agane, tae the lanely sea and the sky. An aw Ah speir is heich boat an a starn tae gae her by . . .” which is charming and interesting but in the end can become somewhat exhausting. (Hame is home in Scots. . . . and the difference between Scots and Gaelic? Scots is a Germanic language like English so much of it is understandable, although with very different pronunciation and spelling. Gaelic is a Celtic language related to modern Irish or Welsh, and is largely unintelligible to English speakers.)
The story is this: a young New York writer, Mhairi McPhail, whose grandfather came from the fictional Scottish island of Fascaray, and who has published a dissertation on the late poet Grigor McWatt (also fictional), is commissioned to travel to the island to set up a museum and write a biography on McWatt, known as the Bard of Fascaray. Having recently divorced, she brings her young daughter who quickly becomes part of island life. The narrative alternates between early writings of the reclusive poet, Mhairi’s contemporary story, McWatt’s “reimaginings” of classic English poetry, and lists of terms in old Scots, with a few Gaelic verses thrown in. The book is heavily foot-noted, and includes a glossary and extensive bibliography, and a great deal of island history . . . .all of which gives it the appearance of a scholarly work . . . but it’s all fictional. Or is it?
The history, the language, the customs are real; the island isn’t. But then there is the list of contemporary musicians who have recorded versions of the fictional poet’s most famous work, Hame tae Fascaray . . . the list includes Neal Diamond, Dolly Parton . . . so wait? Is this real? I found a youtube video of the song recorded by a Scottish folk group which includes pictures of the fictional island. The song is real, the singers are real, but I recognize the island as St. Kilda, not Fascaray. Are you confused yet? I am constantly reminding myself that, in spite of appearances, this is entirely a work of fiction.
The contemporary story of Mhairi and her daughter is less interesting than the island legends and history. McAfee’s characters from a generation or two past, who meet in the pub to gossip and trade stories of the old days, are captivating. Their language is at once rough and musical, their memories are long, and their toughness and loyalty, inspiring.
So I think I really like this book. It’s not a quick read but it’s endlessly intriguing. And I feel like I’m learning a lot . . . I’m just not sure if what I’m learning is real, or something that came as a piece of whole cloth straight out of Annalena McAfee’s imagination.