Amy Sackville’s Orkney is a complicated, beautiful, poetic book that made me feel very uncomfortable, but very glad that I’d read it. It features a classic unreliable narrator, and it’s very difficult to discuss without spoiling anything; the threads of the plot and the ambiguity of the ending are all dependant on, and tainted by, the subjective view of our narrator, Richard.
We have been telling each other the tale of our great romance, as I suppose all newlyweds do; refining the details, spinning it out, combing and weaving the threads of it.
Richard is a professor, 60, and he has just married his elfin ex-student, 21. It’s safe to say he is enchanted, perhaps dangerously so. At her request, they honeymoon on one of the bleak islands of Orkney. “Take me north,” she says, and he is unable to resist.
They spend a lot of time alone; Richard observing his distant new wife – whose name we never learn – through the window, as she sits on the beach, gazing out the to the cold sea that seems to call to her. In the evenings, they retell the story of their courtship.
“You brought the cold in with you, the crisp of the first frost and the leaves already falling; they were tangled in your hair — ‘They were not,’ she said, with a little shove, ‘I’m not a vagrant’ — but so I saw you, darling, an autumn sprite, come in from the first chill.”
Slowly, we realise how little he knows about his wife, her past, her personality, her desires. We notice the things unsaid in the professor’s narrative, the tiny scraps of dialogue from her that build to paint a much different picture of their relationship.
And then their honeymoon ends, in exactly the way you’ve been expecting since about half-way through the novel, only instead of a neat package of answers to go with your conclusion, we’re left with two, three, four possible interpretations of events, each a little sadder and damning than the last. The ambiguity of it lingers, days later.