There’s been a great deal of eager anticipation for Kirsty Logan’s debut in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not the rather over-excited ‘whoop, whoop’ that can be a bit trying – more a steady hum, some of it coming from a friend who runs the Bristol Short Story Prize whose opinion I trust. Logan has already published The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, a much-praised short story collection – the press release for The Gracekeepers quotes a reviewer in the Independent comparing her to Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson which must make you come over all hot and cold if you’re a newly published author. In her strikingly imaginative novel, land has been reduced to far-flung islands set in a sea traveled by evangelical revivalists, the military and the Excalibur circus.
It begins with a vivid scene – a woman dances with a bear mirrored by ‘a small girl and a small bear, hands and paws interlinked’ – remembered by Callanish, a gracekeeper who tends the dead in a world divided into ‘damplings’ who travel the seas, despised by ‘landlockers’ who inhabit the islands. One day, the Excalibur lands on Callanish’s island needing her services for an acrobat who perished in a desperate storm. Excalibur is all glitter and tat. Its ringmaster has his eyes set on restoring the family reputation, setting up his son with North, the young girl who dances with her bear, entrancing the landlockers with their funeral waltz. They’re a discontented company – the clowns are intent on subversion, the ‘glamours’ love to gossip, neither North nor Ainsel want to marry each other and everyone dislikes the ringmaster’s wife who flaunts her pregnancy at every opportunity. North has one priority: keeping her beloved bear safe and happy. When she and Callanish meet, each is drawn to the other but there are many sea miles to sail and stories to be told before they will see each other again.
Logan had me from the first page with her gorgeous use of language: ‘a trio of tattooed ladies, hair bright as petals’ describes the ‘glamours’; ‘Dreams were still caught on the insides of her eyelids’ for the barely awake Callanish; ‘Waves chuttered and shwacked against the moorings of Callanish’s house’. Beautiful descriptive passages summon up this flooded world which seems to have come about after a cataclysm. There are some nods to discontents and problems in our own world: some islands are notable for their ruined tower blocks, North is shown a city sunk far beneath the sea and the clowns – Cash, Dough and Dosh – frequently lampoon bankers playing upon landlockers’ resentments. But this isn’t your common or garden dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel, it’s more a beautiful fantasy which plays with myth and folktales. The press release has a short interview in which Logan describes her themes as ‘non-traditional family, love, belonging, autonomy, home and hunger (both physical and emotional)’ – an ambitious list, but she succeeds in exploring them all. It’s also a rattling good tale, and that cover is a thing of beauty.
If you’d like to read another review of The Gracekeepers, nip over to Word by Word.