Nicolson (God’s Secretaries, 2003, etc.), who has traveled extensively on British soil, takes to the Atlantic coast in this odyssey of island-hopping and psychic exploration.
Nicolson is in the grip of romance for hard, dangerous living, with something vital in its strangeness and seriousness, a life force of sweaty, physical engagement. His vehicle is a boat traveling the waters from southern England up the western edge of Ireland and Scotland, then to the Orkneys, with a final stop in the Faroes. It takes six months, the time between the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Sailing such waters at any time is hard work, especially for those stretches that include only Nicolson and George, his skipper. There are buffeting episodes aplenty, not just when crafts are bullied by the rudeness of the sea—at one point, Nicolson is nearly drowned trying to run a dinghy to an island and getting clobbered by a pugilistic wave—but also when one or both of the men experience a feeling of utter, elemental foreignness that reaches in and plucks their souls like stringed instruments. Nicolson recounts such moments with unaffected wonder: the exultancy he feels at a hermit’s hut high on the Skelligs, a pair of “tall, crocketed rocks” rising 700 feet straight from the ocean, or during a barefoot pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick. There’s a blessing at a monastery, where the strong hand of tradition reduces the men (both nonbelievers) to tears in its display of sustaining love. Then there are the Faroes, which steal Nicolson’s heart, islands that suggest a “living survival of habits of mind,” with their dwellers’ heritage, confidence, and brio.
Nicolson catches grief from the captain for his disengaged ease and lack of seamanship, but his focus is on the wild margins, where land meets water and recalls so much ancient, human drama.