Ursula K. le Guin created an archipelago – drew it first, then wrote about it – as a means of exploring what divides people from each other and how fractured parts can be made whole. Her wanderings through the map of Earthsea, from book to book, exposed a world of cultural differences between its inhabitants. Kirsty Logan’s archipelago in The Gracekeepers, by contrast, seems homogenous. Throughout her world there is a single entrenched division between island-dwelling ‘landlockers’ (who hold the keys to dry land and refuse to let non-landlockers near it) and seagoing ‘damplings’. The former never leave the earth, the latter set foot on solid ground with reluctance and difficulty. The same military vessels police land and sea; the same religious revivalists trawl the islands and waters for converts; apart from the revivalist cult, their faiths don’t vary much (the landlockers worship tree-gods, made bitter and vengeful by the loss of their habitat, while all the damplings bury their dead in maritime ‘graceyards’). The islands don’t have names: they are labeled like the outlying districts of London, North-East 19, South-East 11, North-West 22, as if they have been reduced to suburban uniformity. And though the climate of these islands seems to vary (the Southern ones grow pomegranates and bananas, the Northern specialize in animals) the impression is that they don’t cover a great area; or if they do, that the small amount of land they add up to – and the constant communication between them by means of merchants and messengers – has erased distinctions between them. The same attitude to gender, for instance, prevails from North to South: ‘as ever on the islands, the men and women were separate, with all the children on the women’s side’. There is too little earth left after the deluge to make extremes of difference possible. Everyone conforms.
Life is short, too, especially for damplings. The dangers of a seaborne existence are many, and deaths frequent; few adults live much past forty, and the rituals associated with death have become correspondingly formalized, the length of a family’s grieving process being determined by the number of days a caged bird called a ‘grace’ can live without being fed. The graces are kept by Gracekeepers: landlockers who live alone on islands so small they are almost boats. A Gracekeeper is an exile, cast out by an island’s people for some transgression large or small to spend her life in solitude serving the despised seafaring communities by burying their dead. In their solitude they commit many more transgressions – mostly small ones – safe from the prying eyes of their fellow islanders, unvisited by military men or revivalists. Existing in suspension between land and sea, the rules of either don’t much matter when you’re faced with daily evidence of how briefly they apply.
Everything has shrunk: the amount of land, the range of cultures, the length of a person’s life, the duration of grieving when a life ends. This is a book about smallness, full of small houses, small boats, small minds, small islands, small transgressions. Even the myths of the past have shrunk: a dilapidated circus boat is branded Excalibur, home to a small troupe of only thirteen individuals. One of its occupants calls herself Avalon, after the island where Excalibur was forged and Arthur went to recover from wounds sustained in his final battle. The name Arthur derives from a Celtic word for bear, or from the Greek Arcturus, ‘guardian of the bear’. The circus ringmaster is often likened to a bear, but he’s a depilated specimen with bad skin, burdened with an unfaithful wife and an ungrateful son, just like the original Arthur. Husband and wife address each other as ‘king’ and ‘queen’, but they only have ten subjects besides their son, and their demesnes get steadily smaller as the book goes on.
The ringmaster, known as Red Gold, has a rival for the title of bear guardian: the girl North, who dances or acts in the ring with a nameless bear, and who is destined, in Red Gold’s eyes, to marry his son and re-establish his family line among the landlockers. All the profits of the circus have been sunk in a house on an island where North and Red Gold’s son will live out their days, surrounded by children. North, meanwhile, dreams of the impossible. She is pregnant, and wishes only to keep her child, to keep her bear, to stay unmarried and to go on living in the circus. Red Gold’s dynastic pretensions imperil the baby and North’s place in the floating troupe; Avalon’s hatred of the bear puts its life at risk. North’s dreams are hardly transgressive, but the rigidity of Red Gold’s plans – and of the homogenous culture that dominates Logan’s global archipelago – means that for most of the book they seem inaccessible.
At the same time, she lives in a quasi-transgressive environment, like that of the Gracekeepers. The floating circus troupe ekes out a precarious existence by embodying the fantasies of rebellion and non-conformity the landlockers dare not practise. The acrobats – who pose as an incestuous brother and sister – execute terrifying leaps, soarings and plunges to demonstrate their mutual attraction, in defiance of gravity as well as the law. The equestrians balance on powerful moving animals like pretenders to royalty. The clowns mock the military – the most shocking of their acts, since the military of the archipelago is more or less all-powerful – or offer themselves up as scapegoats to the landlockers’ wrath, dressed as the capitalists whose greed is blamed for the inundation that shrank the world. Maypole dancers writhe in ribbons, performing promiscuity. And the girl North dances or cavorts with her bear, miming a cross-species sexuality which flies in the face of any recognized religion. The circus breaks the rules, and even its king and queen – the hot-tempered Red Gold who decides the programme and issues the orders, the dampling Avalon who dreams of becoming a landlocker – even they don’t conform, as the secret of Avalon’s own pregnancy reveals. Red Gold’s dream of settling his son and daughter-in-law in a cottage on dry land is a transgressive one, challenging the rigid division between land- and sea-dwellers that supposedly defines his world – just as he himself did when he chose to move from his original home on land to become a dampling.
The circus is not homogenous, either. Each member of the troupe has her or his agenda, from the clowns who yearn for anarchy to the self-absorbed boy Ainsel, Red Gold’s son, who dreams of ruling a kingdom on a wooden throne. The differences between the performers are emphasized by the fact that each group or act lives in a separate coracle, attached by chains to the circus boat Excalibur. And Logan neatly embodies their divisions by devoting separate chapters to each performer’s point of view. Even the clowns Cash, Dosh and Dough, Red Gold and the seemingly empty-headed Ainsel get their own chunks of narrative, so we can see at first hand how slant their aims are.
In fact, despite the cultural homogeneity of Logan’s archipelago its inhabitants are as divided from each other as the people of Le Guin’s Earthsea. The isolation of the banished Gracekeepers, who live each on a tiny island seeing nobody but the mourners who seek them out to perform the ritual of the dead, is shared by the landlockers and damplings we encounter in the other chapters, who sometimes yearn to make connections with friends, neighbours, lovers, but invariably fail to do so, or find those connections arbitrarily snapped by the force of circumstance – a sudden storm, a misunderstanding, a drastic mistake. The two central characters in the book, the circus dampling North and the Gracekeeper Callanish, are so obviously fellow spirits that the reader expects them to fall in love as soon as they meet. But they meet only twice, and fleetingly, before the end of the book – first as children and then as a Gracekeeper and her client; and for much of the narrative they can only dream about being together, not imagine it as possible. Judging from readers’ comments online this has been a problem for some of them, who wanted something more like a traditional romance. For me, though, it underscores the point of setting the story in an archipelago. A meeting of minds and bodies isn’t easy, such a geography tells us; it needs a good sense of direction, strength of will, and a generous helping of sheer luck to bring people together. Living separately, on the other hand, is a piece of cake. It’s unpleasant and inconvenient, but it doesn’t need effort, because protecting one’s own boat or island is simply a matter of repelling all boarders without troubling to consider things from their point of view.
North and Callanish represent a possible future for Logan’s island world, through their mutual association with the mysterious sea-people: webbed and gilled humanoids of the ocean whose sex is ambiguous, like seahorses. The circus people specialize in gender ambiguities, which links them, too, with the sea-people; but despite their regular performances of dissidence they are necessarily conformists, subject to policing by the military and locked from land by the customs of the islanders. North’s and Callanish’s attraction to each other and to the sea people breaches the boundaries of land and sea, overcomes rule and ritual, and points to a possibility of limitless movement which is also a feature of archipelago stories. Islands may be divided from each other by water, but they’re linked by it, too, and the image of a submerged city that recurs throughout the narrative – its bells tolled by currents – makes the sea into a potential three-dimensional living space rather than a wasteland. The ocean is linked to death; it kills damplings and terrifies landlockers; but the bells that ring beneath its surface, the people who emerge from it to impregnate human women, make it a source of life, pleasure and potential too. North and Callanish, when they finally converge, work out a new relationship with the sea which promises to serve as a model for communities of the future. The community they form is a tiny one, surrounded by enemies. But the fact that children like them are being born and raised on land and sea, against all the odds, suggests that they will eventually and inevitably inherit the land, the sea, and even the deep waters which are currently forbidden to human beings by biology as well as custom.
This is a novel about the world; but it’s also a novel about Scotland. Callanish is named for a village on Lewis famous for its ring of standing stones; her name makes one think of Logan’s islands as a vastly extended version of the Western Isles. The rigid rules that govern them recall the hackneyed view of island life as governed by an austere Calvinism – a view that neither does justice to the vibrant communities that inhabit them, nor to the rapid changes they have been undergoing for centuries, nor to the diversity of their history as represented by the stones. (The oversized ‘coracles’ in which the circus performers live recall another aspect of island history: the saints who sailed from Ireland to bring God’s word to the people of the far North West.) Other names in the book invoke other aspects of Scottishness: the boy Ainsel, for instance, has his narcissism exposed by the fact that his name means ‘my own self’ in Scots. Red Gold’s full name is Jarrow Stirling, dividing him between one border – the boundary between Highlands and Lowlands where the City of Stirling stands – and another, the Scottish borders (Jarrow is located in north-east England). North’s name insists on the northern orientation of the novel. In one sense, then, it’s a meditation on the state of the North today, the second such fantasy I’ve read in recent months – the other being Neil Williamson’s weird extravaganza The Moon King, set on an island whose annual social and political cycle is governed by the waxing and waning of the moon that’s tethered to the titular ruler’s palace. The connections between these two Scottish fantasies are fascinating, and surely not coincidental.
By this I don’t mean that Logan is indebted to Williamson – the time of a novel’s gestation makes this unlikely, and in any case the two books have very different tones. But the fact that both represent their imagined Northern civilizations as caught between change and rigidity, anarchy and dictatorship, conformity and rebellion, and that both adopt the idea of islands cut off by seas inhabited by sinister and alluring merpeople as a central premise, makes one see them as arising from a similar analysis of the current state of Scotland. Simultaneously inward and outward looking, servile and attracted to radicalism, rule-bound and endlessly inventive, passionate for self determination and afraid to take the political steps that might lead to independence, the inhabitants of Scotland find themselves haunted by mysterious forms of alternative life – represented in both novels by the people of the sea, whose very existence ridicules the notion of rigid borders and national identities – without knowing quite how to react to them beyond the usual human response to otherness: unthinking violence. Both books are not altogether complimentary to the nation that spawned them; after all, like everywhere else it’s got plenty of bigots, thugs, exploiters and narcissists. But both books also offer in the end an exhilarating vision of hope: of expanded horizons and the potential for a strong egalitarian community, whose new self-confidence will make it willing to explore the unknown as well as treasure the familiar. And both books make one quietly proud of the current state of Scottish fiction.