The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

GracekeepersThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan is a book I picked up at random purely based on the blurb. A light fantasy escape read for the upcoming holiday. I listened to an interview with the author just to be sure (linked below), liked what I heard and decided to read it. And it turned out to be the perfect holiday read just as predicted.

Set in an imagined world where the ocean has flooded most of the earth, most people now live permanently at sea. They are referred to as damplings and those that remain on land, who have an air of self-imposed superiority and suspicion of others are known as landlockers.

‘We shouldn’t welcome damplings like this,’ murmured Callanish’s mother. ‘And at night-time, too, when good people should be ticked up safe in their houses! What are those circus folk hiding in the dark, hmm?’ She patted Callanish’s hands, making sure the gloves were on. ‘Some islands don’t even let damplings come above the blackshore. If they want to perform, they can do it in the daytime with waves lapping at their ankles like they’re meant. Those people belong in the water. They’re dirtying the land.’

Most of the story takes place at sea, with the floating circus Excalibur and seen through the eyes of one of its performers, North, whose parents died when she was young. North performs a captivating dance act with her bear, her closest companion, though she is afraid for him, for though he would never harm her, his instinct to protect is strong and dangerous.

The circus moves from place to place, floating between the scattered archipelagoes that are all that remain of earth; they perform to survive, the only way they can eat, although their leader, the ringmaster Red Gold, has alternate plans for North and his son, to try to change that, to establish a presence on land, one that neither youth is particularly enthralled about and that his wife Avalon has become obsessed over.

‘North never felt comfortable with her feet touching land. She didn’t trust its steadiness, its refusal to move or change in the honest way of the sea.’

Callanish is the gracekeeper, graces are small, fragile birds kept by her and used in a grieving ritual as part of her job in the Graceyard, they serve as a reminder of the duration of the mourning period, they are starved and their death signals the end of that period.

gracekeeperShe is the sea equivalent of a funeral home, living isolated in her small house with only the birds and sea-life for company, tending graces and watery graves along the equator. People bring their dead to her for Resting, she performs the ritual and then lays them to rest at the bottom of the ocean in a shroud, tied to the birdcage containing the grace. We don’t know quite how or why she came to be doing this job, only that it was due to something she believes her mother might never forgive her for, penance for a mistake she made long ago.

‘For one adult Resting she was paid a mix of food, supplies and tradable goods: ten eggs, a thick wedge of bacon, a hank of fabric for letter-writing, a lump of copper the size of her thumbnail.’

When the Excalibur is forced to visit the gracekeeper, she meets North and is immediately drawn towards her, it causes a restlessness in her that sees her make some changes and seek resolution to the questions that plague her daily.

It is an interesting story about these two girls, the strange worlds they inhabit and the circumstances that are thrust upon them, forcing them to either accept or rebel. Accept what others want for them or rebel to lead a life that better represents who they really are and to follow their instinct.

There is a whole section about another group of sea-dwellers called the revivalists, which didn’t really fit into the story for me, they were a kind of evangelical group, where Callanish meets a former performer from the Excalibur, and tries to find out how to find the floating circus.

birdcageIt’s an intriguing read that reminded me of The Night Circus, in the same way that there is something magical we sense about this world that is left to the reader’s imagination, Kirsty Logan provides all the elements and introduces the characters but doesn’t inhabit them in such depth to create a solid picture, there remains an element of mystery and curiosity. For example, I didn’t know the meaning of the word coracle, but once I looked it up, that one word alone created a whole new exercise of imagination to understand how they might have fitted behind the circus ship Excalibur.

It would make an excellent picture story book, I found myself wanting to see exactly how the author visually imagined this world.

Further Reading

Review by Susan at A Life in Books – The Gracekeepers: A rattling good tale, beautifully told

Interview with Kirsty Logan at Edinburgh International Festival

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the UK publisher via NetGalley.

Wake by Elizabeth Knox

Vinter's LuckElizabeth Knox is a well-known New Zealand author whom I first discovered via a book club I belonged to in London. We read her astonishing novel The Vintner’s Luck which provoked an animated discussion as opinions were so diverse, all agreeing we had not read anything like it before.

Since then she has published a fascinating pair of young adult novels The Dreamhunter Duet, a sequel to The Vinter’s Luck and another YA (young adult) book Mortal Fire, which I plan to read this year.

I met Elizabeth Knox when she and three other New Zealand writers visited France as part of Les Belles étrangères cultural visit some years ago and so I was delighted when she asked me a few questions recently about our local library here in Aix-en-Provence, a location that may feature in one of her upcoming adventures. So thanks Elizabeth for the copy of Wake, it certainly had me reading outside my comfort zone, but within a very familiar landscape.

Wake will be published in the UK by Little, Brown Book Group in March 2015. The book covers below show the New Zealand version on the left, illustrated by Dylan Horrocks and the pending UK version.

wake ukWake Elizabeth KnoxA sleepy, waterfront town in the South Island of New Zealand with a Kākāpō reserve is the setting for this macabre, sci-fi adventure, revolving around 14 survivors of an invisible, destructive and still hungry presence that has created  a kind of net outside which the survivors can not move without dire consequences.

When the presence arrives, as it does in the opening pages, death, destruction and bizarre, disgusting action follows, the kind of thing that might normally turn this reader off, however I have faith in the author, an adept mistress of storytelling, so I persevere, despite the feeling of dread as the initial pages are littered with zombie-like scenes, the kind I would never wish to see on celluloid.

The novel is narrated from the point of view of the survivors, as they learn how to stay within the threatening environment without succumbing to this invisible presence. They try to understand what has happened and what is continuing to happen, how to survive and overcome the insidious presence and whether they can trust each other.

It reads almost like a reality television show of survival, but in reverse because they remain in the town they know, only now they are its only inhabitants having no contact with the outside world and a sense of pending doom as their isolation pushes each of them toward their own mental limits.

We get to know the individual characters, thrown together seemingly at random, how their strengths and weaknesses both help and hinder the group and how as a team they attempt to survive.

With so many characters and little if any connection between them before this catastrophe, the story is as much an unveiling of character, as it is a journey toward its own conclusion. I found it a compelling read, once I got past the initial horror and enjoyed the mystery of trying to predict which characters were going to contribute to the final outcome.

There is a strong sense of place and whether it was the writing or the familiarity and ease at which I could imagine the surroundings, I found it a very visual read, I could see faces and hear the dialogue as I read almost as if I was indeed watching that version, I said I wouldn’t. Well, maybe with a cushion to hand when the creepy music starts.

It is a novel that keeps you thinking and guessing, trying to understand what the force portrayed actually is and whether it has a weak or vulnerable spot. It is made all the more complex by being invisible and the reader having no insight into what is happening in the world outside the devastated zone.

And the flightless, endangered Kākāpō? A metaphor of survival perhaps?

The Kākāpō, a large, flightless nocturnal bird, critically endangered, only 126 living as of March 2014

The Kākāpō, a large, flightless nocturnal bird, native to New Zealand, critically endangered, only 126 living as of March 2014

When did you last read a book that was outside your regular comfort zone? Did it surprise you?

The Night Circus

120912_2017_GreatChrist6.jpgI bought this back in November and put it aside to be my post-Christmas read, a time when I am happy to indulge in a little magic realism, which this promised to be and most certainly was.

Since finishing it, I have come to see it more and more as a metaphor of the reading experience itself, Le Cirque des Rêves is a circus like no other, it opens at night and closes at dawn, full of enchantment and extra-sensory pleasures, where everything exists in black and white and whose followers, les rêveurs (dreamers) wear a splash of red to identify themselves.

Now, sitting in this cave of lightly perfumed silk, what had seemed constant and unquestionable feels as delicate as the steam floating over her tea. As fragile as an illusion.

night circusEach tent offers an extraordinary experience and like a good story, invites its readers inside to share the temporary illusion. It struck me the way the circus moves from city to city, from country to country with its fans following to be a little like the blogosphere itself, this place where we easily circumnavigate the globe, visiting blogs and reading/experiencing their content, like les rêveurs ourselves.

We lead strange lives, chasing our dreams around from place to place.

The Night Circus follows the lives of two young people, Celia and Marco. Marco is an orphan plucked from obscurity in 1874 by a somewhat slow aging illusionist to be trained as his protégé, a pawn in a seemingly never-ending game he continues to wage against Prospero the Enchanter, who chooses to nurture (in his own cruel way) a daughter he discovers he has when she arrives on his doorstep in 1873, with a suicide note pinned to her coat written by her mother. The two youngsters follow the different schools of thought of their masters, destined to meet and compete in a game where only one can be victorious and where the rules are deliberately obscure.

Along the way a catalogue of characters are drawn into this web of entanglement, along with the reader, never quite knowing exactly what drives and controls the outcomes, but mesmerised nonetheless within the fascination and charm of the circus and its characters.

BettleheimThis book prompted me to pull out an old copy of Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment – The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales; a child psychologist, he was a fan of the value of  fairy tales for young people, believing they provided a safe environment to liberate their emotions.

… how wandering in enchanted worlds, children develop their own sense of justice, fidelity, love and courage… not as lessons imposed, but as discovery, as experience, as an organic part of the experience of living.

Books like Erin Morgenstern’s  The Night Circus, invite us to return to that world as adults, discerning a slightly different but no less valuable meaning, as we have grown older and a little more cynical, able now to find deeper meaning in the analogies offered.

It is a tribute to the imagination, to a darkness that is not despairing and the light that always finds a way to reignite the flame.

The White Forest

Adam McOmber’s debut novel is set in Victorian London in an area I know well, at least in contemporary terms.  Jane Silverlake and her friends Madeline Lee and Nathan Ashe live in Hampstead and regularly take walks on Hampstead Heath, the ‘Green Lungs of London’, my favourite London park.  At 790 acres, it is the largest and being wooded, you can imagine it is almost a little wild in parts and certainly the closest relatively untouched inner city natural environment you will find.

Gentle rolling hills, natural swimming ponds, light forest with a few park benches scattered throughout, it reminds us of those who have appreciated its precious gift over the years.

However, most of that is in the future, because Jane and Maddy are living in 18 – – and concerned about the strange behaviour of their friend Nathan, since he returned from the Crimea War and took up with the strange, alluring Ariston Day and his secret society of young, wealthy male followers whom he refers to as ‘Fetches’.

Jane had become a loner after her mother died due to the wary reaction of others to her peculiar sensitivity, until Maddy sought her out and now with Nathan, she is content to have such close friends, even though suspicious of Nathan’s pressing interest in her strange abilities.

Jane has a talent for sensing the mood of objects around her and Nathan is interested in her skill when he discovers her ability to transfer this sensation through touch. Frustrated with his persistence and wish to experiment, she is shocked when she subsequently hears he has disappeared and that the cult he was involved with believe she had something to do with it.

My newfound ability allowed me to  see past those surfaces into another reality – a universe of animate space concealed within the inanimate.

When I looked into the faces of my friends, I became all the more determined to put right the wrongs I’d done.  But in order to do so, I still needed to understand my own nature.

Maddy and Jane decide to take matters into their own hands and try to find Nathan, leading them to a place from which they risk not being able to return.

This is one of those books, where we don’t understand all that is going on with the characters as the author presents them.  Are they really friends these three or is something else going on? Who can be trusted?  Adam McOmber does well to keep the reader guessing without giving things away, though perhaps keeps us on a string a little too long waiting for Jane to embrace her power and use it. She is somewhat the reluctant heroine, but once she finally assumes that role, it is more exciting and less frightening to follow her into the depths of this macabre adventure.

The Crystal Palace, London

Slightly eerie, steampunk literature that I can quite imagine being made into a compelling film, it has the potential to be more scary on-screen, but inhabits an enticing era and parts of Victorian London, including The Crystal Palace, originally built-in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, Southwark now home to the Tate Modern, the hidden Temple area and of course the Heath.

This is Adam McOmber’s debut novel, he also has a collection of short stories out called This New and Poisonous Air, and I have a feeling we will be seeing more from him in the future.

Note: This was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) made available from the publisher via NetGalley.