Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

I want to be friends with Kirsty Logan. Is that weird?

When I started my Twitter account it was with the sole purpose of trying to attract more readers to my blog – I’m pretty sure that that hasn’t happened, although I must say that the publishing companies and some authors have been great about re-tweeting my reviews, which definitely makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. However! What I have really gained from Twitter, is a bunch of ladies that I love following – Kirsty Logan, Sarah Perry, Kerry Hudson, Jessie Burton – I love watching them interact with each other, I love reading their books and I literally just want to be friends with them. Whenever I tweet any of them, I get a response, and they just all seem so sweet and lovely. It really makes me wish I lived overseas and could somehow fandangle a ‘random run-in’.  But I’m a creep like that.

The Gracekeepers is Logan’s first novel – and I must say that she has done a brilliant job with it. I don’t really want to compare this to Station Eleven, as the books are totally different, but like Emily St John Mandel (another Twitter fave), Logan has created a deeply rich post-apocalyptic setting, where the setting is vitally important to the character of the story, but not at all the thing that you focus on. Logan has created another perfect blend of a story driven genre novel. This time we are in a world where the sea has taken over and there are very few landmasses left. Humanity has divided itself, as it always does, between the haves and the have nots. In this case the haves are the landlockers; those who live on the few islands, able to grow their own food, build their own shelters and have a refuge during the storms. The rest and, once again mirroring real life, the majority of humanity are the damplings – those who are forced to live a nomadic boat life. Travelling from island to island in the hopes of getting a real meal and living the best they can off the few fish and seaweed cooked any way you can imagine. “Ah, so you’re angry because they are rich? Because they don’t have to scratch around for every single thing they eat or touch or use? You have a lot to learn little fish. There’s no use in the poor hating the rich. There’s more to the world than landlockers versus damplings.” Unlike Station Eleven, in The Gracekeepers we never find out what happened or when, we are just plopped in the middle with no explanation.

In the same sort of way we come across the characters of this story. We have North, a circus performer with the traveling boat circus Excalibur; North is a rare character in the circus world due to her act – performing scenes with her tame bear. North was born on the circus, like most of its performers, it’s the only home she knows; but North harbours a potentially dangerous secret, one that might upset the precarious balance of the floating circus. Callanish, a landlocker by birth, now lives as a gracekeeper – one who buries the dead damplings at sea. She has taken this life as a form of punishment for something from her past, and she also harbours a secret that she fears will potentially destroy her. The life that she has chosen is a lonely one – gracekeepers live alone on a house in the sea and rely on food from mourners in exchange for the burial rites. She hasn’t really taken to the life and feels the loneliness very acutely “Around them the graces shuddered in their cages and the sea sucked at the moorings. It was not difficult to pretend they were the only people left in the world. It was so easy, in fact, that perhaps it wasn’t pretending. No one would ever know what happened out here. Such small crimes”. North and Callanish cross paths after a terrible storm and are brought together by their secrets and their fears. “I’ve never actually gotten this far before. I’ve tried to tell people, but I couldn’t manage it. You already know so I thought it would be easier.” While they end up parting ways almost immediately, they are both so struck by one another that they start to see life in a new way, Callanish tries to atone for her past and North tries to figure out a better way to live.

The Gracekeepers is a pretty quick read. I read it over a period of two days, but could have easily finished it in one. The writing is incredibly beautiful, lyrical and it just flows so smoothly, I had read half the book without even realizing it. It almost felt like I was reading a long short story – all of the characters could easily have their own stories; which were something I loved about this book. The characters were all larger than life – from ‘Red Gold’ Stirling, the circus ringmaster, who longs to bring his family back to land and respectability – trying to accomplish this by marrying his son off to North and forcing her to live on land, his horrible wife Avalon, who chose her name to appeal to Red Gold and wants nothing more than to live on land, doing anything she can to get it “When people are cruel it’s often said that they have no heart, only a cold space or lump of ice in their chest. This was never true of Avalon. She had no heart, everyone knew, but there was nothing cold about her. In her chest burned an enormous coal, white-hot, brighter than the North Star. North knew the truth about Avalon: she was made of fire, and she would burn them all.” Even the secondary characters, the clowns and acrobats in the circus, the messengers who bring news to the gracekeepers, even North’s bear – they all had a certain something that left me longing to know more about them – to read them in their own stories. My previous encounter with Logan was through her short story collection – The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. I have only read the first couple of stories so far – but the titular story, The Rental Heart, I can honestly say, is probably the best short story that I have ever read. Logan is a master of the short story, of packing as much punch as possible into those few pages, it’s incredible.  One of the things that I honestly loved best about this novel was that I felt it to be a unifying thread (or story) connecting all these other potential stories. I will be very sad indeed if she doesn’t, at some point, write another collection based on the characters from The Gracekeepers.

There are definitely elements of old folk tales in this book and I loved how Logan wove them in throughout the narrative. I guess, really, that everything that happens, to North at least, comes from folk tales, but its not overt in any way. Its just a starting point for the story. A jumping point. I would have loved to read more on that aspect, but I didn't feel like I was missing out on anything - I think that the small amount of actual fairy tale ends up making to book more accessible to a wider audience.  My only actual complaint about this book at all was that the ending was a wee bit rushed, another review that I read commented on the fact that something very tragic happens and the character involved doesn’t really seem to react – which I didn’t really notice at the time, but upon reflection agree with – it would have been nice to see more closure with that. Generally, I am always a fan when things are left unsaid; when parts of stories are left untold or endings are left unresolved (I should not say always… Firefly ending prematurely will always sadden me). And while the ending of the main story in this novel was definitely resolved, there was so much more that was left open. There were people and stories that were alluded to, without really being developed – and this worked perfectly for me. This story wasn’t about them; it was about North and Callanish. I think that anything extra would have distracted from them, from their story. That being said, I still have my fingers crossed for a short story collection based on everyone else!

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