293pp, Harvill Secker, £12.99
When the writer Angela Carter died in 1992, far too early, Kirsty Logan was a little girl. And now, as her first novel The Gracekeepers is published, she has picked up Carter’s mantle and has written, in her own alluring voice, a fairy tale which glitters like sun on the sea where it is set, weaving a story in which all readers can, if they allow themselves to see it, discover something of their own desires and dreams.
In a world which has become defined by water, “damplings” outnumber “landlockers” ten to one. There are many vessels on the sea catering for the varying needs of the world’s inhabitants. There are boats that carry religious revivalists, the military, suppliers, messengers. And there are circus boats. One such is Excalibur, drawing a line of five coracles. Its crew of thirteen is made up of the ringmaster, his wife and son, a fire-breather, acrobats, clowns, gender-bending “glamours” who deal in ribbons “dyed bright with ground-up shells and seaweed” and, central to the story of The Gracekeepers, North, a girl who dances with a bear.
In the still waters of the doldrums are graceyards. Here live – not in boats but in tiny houses on the sea – gracekeepers who carry out Restings, sea burials. For each Resting there is a grace, a caged bird whose life span marks the time of mourning. The colours of grace feathers “shift from green to blue, like the sea. It means remembrance.”
Callanish is a gracekeeper. She and North are brought together when Whitby, an acrobat in the circus, is drowned in a storm and Excalibur visits the gracekeeper for his Resting. Callanish and North find that they are connected by memories related to the bear. And they sense from their first meeting that they have something more fundamental in common, something which will draw them to one another.
Both circus folk and gracekeepers are outcasts, whether by choice or not. Here’s Callanish talking to another gracekeeper:
‘That’s the choice,’ she said to Odell. ‘Here or there. Dampling or landlocker. Sea or land. Man or woman. But this is something different. Don’t you see? We made our homes on the sea and on the land. We can stay here in the graceyards and be nothing. I mean, be neither.’
‘Being neither’ opens up the possibility of a third way, of forgiveness for past wrongs, real or imagined, and of new beginnings. This is something that North yearns for too. But first there are journeys to be made, trials to be endured. There are in this story archetypal characters from the tradition of fairy tale and myth. The ringmaster, Red Gold/Jarrow, is a king who is weak in the face of his wife Avalon, the wicked stepmother who took her name opportunistically when she first stepped aboard Excalibur. She is, as North recognises, “made of fire” and it is inevitably she who provokes the final drama.
Kirsty Logan writes with clarity, directness and specificity. In The Gracekeepers the birds “pweet and muss”, the waves “chutter” and “shwack”, a grieving woman speaks in “fummels and haffs”, all wonderful onomatopoeic words which the author has made up, drawing on the sounds of her Scottish heritage. Her use of language is by turns poetic – North is woken by knocking on her coracle with dreams “still caught on the insides of her eyelids” – and straightforward – “‘Knock knock!’ called Red Gold, which seemed pointless to North as he was already knocking.”
There is, in this story, immense richness. The circus, wherever it takes place, is a metaphor for the shifting nature of much which we count dear in life. How well do we really know things and people? And, ultimately and tellingly, do we wish other people well or ill? The circus is a place of colour and brightness in the night, a place where magic can happen, or you think it does, an opportunity for escape from the humdrum, a place of transgression:
Spectacle is grounded in the illusion of control. The crowd think they want safety, but what they really crave is the trick gone wrong: the fall from the trapeze, the uncovering of bone.
The circus is also the perfect vehicle for a layered tale, for an exploration of surface and depth in life. Take the clowns, who combine laughter, pathos and lampooning in public. Underneath, as in all of us perhaps, are:
…their delicacies, their sensitivities, their quiet afternoons spent in thought.
The sea hides things too. Ainsel takes North deep down to a buried city, where his great-great-great-great grandfather lived. But it does not make their desires coalesce. She, like Callanish, sees the possibility of difference in the sea, but Ainsel is not open to new possibilities, and dismisses what North says about these as “nonsense about sea monsters.”
We all have different views of the world, different maps which we follow and which we adapt to fit the reality of our experiences, the cycle of birth, life and death through which we must all move, and the unbreakable family bonds which may confound us. As Callanish leaves her graceyard on a long journey to find her mother and seek forgiveness for the wrong she believes she has done her, she feels a strong desire to take an old map from her wall, but fears it will be ruined if she does. It is as if she knows that she will have to redraw the map, that change is inevitable. Which it is, for Callanish, for Excalibur and for North and her bear.
The Gracekeepers moves from narrative drive to reflective passages and back very effectively. The ending is particularly well realised, the drama resolving with a gentle coda. For me the least successful element of the book, because it is the least specifically drawn and also somewhat circular, is Jarrow/Red Gold’s desire and drive to get North and his son Ainsel to marry and live in a house on land. But if a first novel is perfect, where is there to go but towards disappointment? This is a very good novel, one to relish and re-read with great excitement about what Kirsty Logan will go on to write next.