Angus Peter Campbell is a Hebridean, born and bred on South Uist. He is a award-winning poet and novelist, who writes both in Gaelic and English. His most recent novel is the first ever to be published simultaneously in both languages and is set on the island of Mull (though not exclusively). It is woven around a pivotal moment on the ferry from Oban to Mull.
Alasdair crosses Helen’s path on the ferry steps.
“Sorry” I said to her, trying to stand to one side, and she smiled and said, ‘O, don’t worry – I’ll get by.’
Blink and you’d miss it but this moment remains in his head for the rest of his life, as he wonders what might have been if he’d followed through on his instant attraction. What I found puzzling though is that Alasdair’s life from that moment on isn’t miserable. He’s not paralysed by the lost opportunity. His studies are successful, he flourishes when he leaves the island, he marries, and eventually retires to France. Yet there is always a melancholic what if undertone.
Is it the loss of a potentially spectacular love that is being mourned, or the loss of the island lifestyle?
As a young man he plays an active role in the community and he celebrates his friendships. He becomes a boat-builder’s apprentice and builds a skiff for a middle-age couple who dream of whiling away their retirement on sailing trips. Life doesn’t turn out that way for them and the boat is left to rot.
Cue diversion – seems that this is the fate of many a boat on Mull. You could say I went wreck-spotting while there recently. Here are my top 3 wrecks.
Flippant as the diversion may be, it’s not irrelevant to a novel that is full of such diversions. It meanders with stories from Gaelic folklore, celebrations of the Gaelic languages, island tradition and straightforward Scottish humour.
Did you of the Lewis-Man who loved his wife so much he almost told her?
Helen’s story is as important and is told in alternating chapters. It, too, encompasses loss – most regretfully that of a violin, a family heirloom, stolen at Waverley station. Yet her life appears more purposeful …
Still 40 years after they first met on the ferry, they meet again and immediately recognise each other. Will this second chance meeting lead to happiness or …. is the path to further loss unavoidable?
I wouldn’t recommend reading this novel for its plot, which at times simply is not credible. It spans two separate lives over a period of 40 years in just under 200 pages, so perhaps I should say it condenses. There’s a lot of telling, not showing. It’s hard to get emotionally involved. And yet, I will remember the beautiful prose describing the island landscape and the honesty of its language and its culture (and the metaphoric rotting boat).
I remember Aamer Hussein once bemoaning the criticism given to the quietness of his novels. They contain a wealth of emotional drama, he said. The same is true here but the style is far too undramatic for me.