A longing for home sends the author around the world.
In a memoir remarkable for its intimacy, wisdom, and radiant prose, Scottish singer/songwriter Tallack (Fair Isle: Through the Seasons, 2010), who was born in Shetland and lives in Glasgow, follows the 60th parallel, the border marking the harsh, remote northern regions from the more populous south. His purpose, though, is not to produce a travelogue about ruggedly exotic landscapes but to ask a philosophical question: “where am I?” From the age of 10, living in the Shetlands with his mother and brother after his parents divorced, he felt alienated and uprooted, which later intensified into “an unshakable feeling of exile and of homesickness” and an urge to find a place where he belonged. His father’s sudden death, when the author was 16, further fueled his restlessness and inspired his journey. Leaving Scotland, he headed west to Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, St. Petersburg, Finland, Sweden, and Norway before returning home. At each stop, his observations include not only a close examination of geology, geography, flora and fauna, but also history, myth, art, and literature. Tallack discovers a palimpsest of lives: he traces the arrival of Norsemen in Greenland at the end of the first millennium C.E., for example, where they encountered peoples “whom they called skraelings: wretches,” with whom they co-existed in “an uneasy balance.” The author offers a capsule history of opulent, besieged St. Petersburg, whose architecture, an amalgam of European styles, reflects the grand designs of various czars and czarinas. He also fell in love, unexpectedly, with Kamchatka, in desolate Siberia: “there was a stillness at its heart that seemed to calm, temporarily, the restlessness in my own.” He felt the same “deep centredness and settledness” in Fair Isle, an island off Scotland, and stayed for three years before loneliness impelled him back to Shetland. Throughout, Tallack renders descriptions of his emotional landscape as delicately as his painterly descriptions of the physical world.
An enthralling meditation on place.