of life, love and missing the boat
Jennifer Cunningham, Glasgow Herald, Saturday 16th November 2013
encounter with a girl on a ferry to Mull has such a powerful effect on the
young man who brushes against her on a stairway that, not only does he remember
every detail for the rest of his life, he believes the love he felt in that
moment “has encased every choice I have ever made”.
stretched but it was a long, hot Hebridean summer and our narrator, with “the
university behind me and the world before me”, is hyper-sensitive to new
experiences in the world around him.
moment, that world is Angus Peter Campbell’s home territory of South Uist.
There we are
soon enmeshed in a time warp of old stories which provide precedents for such a
coup de foudre and a context for the magical realism that, in Campbell’s
fiction, fuses Gaelic folk tradition and literary boundary-breaking.
quickly counterbalanced by the physical task of boatbuilding. The nameless
narrator, who later becomes Alasdair (one of several Alasdairs, reinforcing the
concept of an inescapable continuum) spends this last summer of freedom as
labourer to Big Roderick, boatbuilder, ecologist, philosopher and alcoholic. In
a finely observed vignette, the reader shares the delights and disappointments
of the consummate craftsman: “nothing ever is as you really intended, for the
garboard is not quite right, and the strakes just not quite as bevelled as you
meant them to be...”
inevitable failure to produce absolute perfection sends Big Roderick back to
the drink and Alasdair to a “substitutionary life where all the failures are
repeated and redeemed in the vain hope that, sometime, words will sing”.
unrequited love for the girl on the ferry is more than the contemplation of
where the road not taken might have led. For Alasdair, despite a marriage and a
successful career, it has been a thorny reminder of a life not fully lived.
Worse, there have been elements of falseness in earning a good living as an
expert on Gaelic culture, feted at international conferences by academics who
are impressed by his “abstract guff” but don’t know enough to recognise when
they are the butt of a joke.
must surely bear this in mind in relation to the islander who was thrice taken
elsewhere by the Host of the Dead. The point is to illustrate a dual state: the
possibility of being at once in the present and in the remembered (or
re-imagined) past and the impossibility of defining which is reality. That
Campbell simultaneously wrote English and Gaelic versions of this novel further
explores the idea of the same event being experienced differently.
girl on the ferry, is the stuff of dreams but no mirage. Her story begins with
a violin stolen in Waverley station, causing a devastated Helen to return to Mull to explain the loss of a
family treasure. The smallholding run single-handedly by her widowed mother is
a very paradise.
it cannot hold the young woman whose ecology training leads to humanitarian
work in blighted parts of the world. He story, told in the third person, is the
shadow to Alasdair’s and frustratingly
condensed to a summary. By contrast, other lives are revealed in more detail,
such as the meeting of the couple who commissioned Big Roderick to build their
boat, another Alasdair and Katell.
see each other through the window that Alasdair is cleaning – and now have
grandchildren and great-grandchildren scattered across the globe.
Alasdair are fated to re-enact that ferry encounter with different results and
it does not spoil the denouement to say a happy-ever-after ending would be too
In terms of
plot, this is more novella than novel, a linked series of tender but largely
unsentimental scenes from a way of life that is under threat, interspersed with
equally assured cameos in London and Paris. As with the boat, its construction
is not quite perfect but, despite its gentle tone, the questions it raises
about fate, chance, and love persist after the book is closed.