A tender evocation of a sheltered valley.
In his delicately wrought debut novel, journalist, songwriter, and nonfiction writer Tallack (The Undiscovered Islands:An Archipelago of Myths and Mysteries, Phantoms and Fakes, 2017, etc.) explores the meaning of place, freedom, and community to residents of a remote Scottish island. Like Anne Tyler’s Baltimore or Jane Smiley’s Iowa, Tallack’s Shetland valley, a landscape that he knows intimately, is integral to the lives of his characters, who seek solace and communion there: emotionally wounded Sandy, for one; Alice, a mystery writer grieving after her husband’s sudden death; and Terry, escaping loneliness in alcohol. For Sandy, who lives in one of the island’s larger towns, the valley insulates him “from the fractured world that once had seemed so threatening,” making him feel “absorbed by the place, without being destroyed by it.” He came with his girlfriend, Emma, whose parents are crofters, a way of life her father inherited without question: “both a gift and a choice.” Emma, though, feeling smothered by the valley, has left, suddenly, to make other choices. When her father offers Sandy work and a place to live, the young man decides to stay. Also escaping a fractured world is Alice, who has returned to the island that enchanted her on her honeymoon. Now she plans to write about it, “to contain it in words and in thoughts, to describe the place and to encompass it.” Provisionally titled The Valley at the Centre of the World, the book project, she hopes, will give her a sense of belonging. But learning about hedgehogs, sheep, and hares leaves Alice longing to know more about her elusive, reticent neighbors. After an elderly woman dies, her journals, diaries, and letters are passed on to Alice. But neither the writings nor the woman’s house, which Sandy moves into, reveal Maggie’s inner life. Indeed, Tallack’s gentle, compassionate portrayal of his characters leaves their hearts and minds inviolable: “Sometimes,” one woman remarks to Terry, “things lose their magic when you know how to take them apart.”
A gentle tale of an island buffeted by wild winds and imbued with melancholy.