The Gracekeepers by Lirsty Logan: A rattling good tale, beautifully told

Cover image 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.

11 thoughts on “The Gracekeepers by Lirsty Logan: A rattling good tale, beautifully told”

    1. Susan Osborne

      It is, indeed! I’m not usually attracted to such flights of fancy but Logan carries this on off beautifully.

    1. Susan Osborne

      I know – it must have been somewhat daunting for her to say the least but she is deserving of it. It’s a wonderful piece of writing

  1. I read this on holiday last week, I was attracted to it immediately and after listening to the interview decided to add it to my list.

    It reminded me a little of The Night Circus in its slight mysteriousness, where the reader is required to use their imagination as much as the writer has, in this new world that is a little like ours, but then again not – and where the behaviours of people are slowly revealed and understood. I loved the concept, the world she created and the characters were intriguing.

    I’m not sure about the comparisons, I think that’s an indication of the tendency today for publishers to try and tag new works next to better knowns.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Spot on with The Night Circus comparison, Claire. In fact I had intended to have ‘More The Night Circus than Nights and the Circus’ as my subheading but it sounded rather dismissive which was not what I intended. I’m sure the publishers loved the starry comparisons although it was actually a reviewer rather than they who provided it. A somewhat disparate list it is, too!

  2. I really ought to try something by Kirsty Logan at some stage as she sounds like an intriguing writer. Interesting to read Claire’s comment as Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus popped into my mind as I was reading your review!

    1. She’s well worth your time, Jacqui. I would agree with Claire that the book is more The Night Circus than Nights at the Circus – Carter’s writing has that sharp, sly humour which Logan’s lacks but I don’t think that’s what she’s aiming at

  3. Pingback: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan | Word by Word

  4. I have this on my list to read, so I’m glad to see your review. From what you’ve written, I’m looking forward to it even more now

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