Nathan Munday reviews Waterfalls of Stars by Rosanne Alexander, a captivating account of a microcosm of life on the island of Skomer.
‘Even now, the slightest thing can take me back: the way the sunlight catches in the turn of the wave or a distant bird call, half-heard, snagged in the breeze. Then, in that moment between eye-blinks, I am there on a cliff top at the edge of the Atlantic’.
And so am I. Take the book in your hand and it is like setting off across the choppy sound in a small boat to Skomer. I’m talking about the front cover of course. A storm is brewing: the orange blue colour of an angry sky juxtaposes with an aquamarine hope in the top right-hand corner; these colours are intensified by a warm paradise sun, peeping just beyond the spine. This is what you see when you first take Waterfall of Stars into your hand. The island is there too; it looks like a melancholic whale, trailing through the waves – a living creature rather than some piece of rock. As I read this lyrical account of the Alexanders’ sojourn, it struck me how words still transport us, and how we all subliminally crave for a decade on a lonely, uninhabited island on the edge of the Atlantic.
Islands are complex places. They are both microcosms of mainland life and alternative spaces for new beginnings. Waterfalls of Stars does have that frontier feel to it. Inside their basic refuge, Radio 4 is like a flickering reminder of home. There are Wordsworthian instances where the dark island reveals its huge form which sometimes frightens the author. The scream of a rabbit caught by a buzzard, or the wind blowing across the isthmus become significant events. We soon realise that the island, like a pagan deity, gives and takes away. It provides a panorama of colour and light as well as the darkness that is felt by the reader. It gives off a melody – sometimes cacophony, sometimes not – of Puffins, Shearwaters, and Kittiwakes. These birds use Skomer as a home, or as a spring board to other places, a breeding ground, or possibly, even a holiday destination. But like the Alexanders, we cannot fly away and we stay when things take the turn for the worst. Skomer’s beaches are a haven for the seals before turning into hell when an oil spill laps the island’s shore. Even Skomer cannot escape the black force that drives the human machine. The disintegrating cliff edges are a poignant reminder that these places are rare and that they are threatened…
The sea is as complex as the island. It attacks Skomer on a daily basis but, in a strange way, it also acts as its shield and defender. The same waves that wound the seals during the oil spill had wooed Rosanne when she first arrived:
It was impossible to enter the water there without feeling the breath snag in the back of my throat and thinking ‘never again’, but its appearance was so limpidly enticing that I fell victim to its temptations again and again. Then, as the first sensation of shock subsided, I was won over. I became lost in the fascination of that different world, following my ghostly pale hands as they parted a trail through the shuddering fronds of seaweed.
This sensual image is just one of many that she paints for us as she is ‘lost in the fascination’ of these new worlds. I could not eradicate that image from my mind for days. I envied that experience. It triggered some distant memory in my own mind when I went snorkelling as a child. It was either the ‘ghostly pale hands’ or the seaweed trails that did it. It is Alexander the artist that is swimming here. This is not the first Welsh island to draw the gaze of a literary painter. Brenda Chamberlain lived on Bardsey and then there was David Jones, who was drawn to the rocks of Caldey with his sacramental gaze. Rosanne Alexander has added Skomer to that Welsh portfolio of island works. The Alexanders painted during their sojourn and I was surprised, at first, when she did not include any illustrations, paintings, or photographs in the book. Perhaps this is an experiment with words where the sonic palette of imagined bird calls, rich adjectives, and personal memoir portrays the island in much clearer and realistic hues. But I still would have liked some pictures.
Alexander’s writing is captivating. It is experiential, fresh, and alive, reflecting the peripheral environment where this book was born. Perhaps this is why travel writing, or at least books about place, remain as popular as ever. They give us a dose of fresh air which gives us a craving for more and more and we are not satisfied until we step outside and find something worth writing about.
It is ‘fresh’ in other ways as well. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (which was written from the perspective of his younger self), Alexander writes with that same youthful voice. The experiences are new to her and she describes them in a way which gives us newcomers the same insight that she had when she landed on the island:
Everything was a first; nothing was lost in the haze of routine.
She’s honest. Even the extensive use of adjectives is part of the honeymooned lexicon which makes this story real. She does not shy away from describing the frustrations which add to the colourful tapestry of marriage. There is much joy too and an Adam and Eve feel to the narrative; a man and a woman, isolation, a beautiful but dangerous habitat, and animals galore. My favourite has to be Wellington the goat who causes them to fall now and again! The animals are never over-anthropomorphised, but we do feel that we know and care for them. The book involves us and we are as hungry as they are when they run out of food. I was heart wrenchingly gutted when the precious pear pudding was ruined or when a bird flew in through the window, leaving shards of glass in the freshly cooked pies.
The structure of Waterfalls of Stars was always going to be tricky. How does one sum up ten years in three hundred pages? I was sceptical at the beginning but I was soon broken into the rhythms of the island. The structure becomes less important. These are, after all, the moments ‘between eye-blinks’ and memories should never be restricted by the chapters and divisions of mainland life which run with Filofax accuracy.
By the end of the book, I was both ready and unready to leave Skomer. Maybe that’s what Adam and Eve felt as they left the confines of Eden? Anyhow, the reader should not rush through this experience. Stay in Skomer for a while, close your eyes, and breathe the fresh air of the Atlantic.
Rosanne Alexander’s Waterfalls of Stars is available now from Seren.