Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Review: 'The Gracekeepers' by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers was a book I had heard a lot of good things about before I started reading it myself. I was intrigued by the premise, by the cover and by everything I'd heard which meant that by the time I actually started reading, Kirsty Logan had a major challenge ahead of her in wowing me.

Pub. Date: 23/04/2015
Publisher: Random House UK/ Harvill Secker
The magical story of a floating circus and two young women in search of a home. 
The sea has flooded the earth. North lives on a circus boat, floating between the scattered islands that remain. She dances with her beloved bear, while the rest of the crew trade dazzling and death-defying feats for food from the islanders. However, North has a secret that could capsize her life with the circus.
Callanish lives alone in her house in the middle of the ocean, with only the birds and the fish for company. As penance for a terrible mistake, she works as a gracekeeper, tending the graves of those who die at sea. What drove her from home is also what pulls her towards North.
When a storm creates a chance meeting between the two girls, their worlds change. They are magnetically drawn to one another, and the promise of a new life. But the waters are treacherous, and the tide is against them.
World building, in my opinion, is a major part of what constituted good writing. Each author sees his or her own fictional world slightly differently, even if that world is seemingly exactly the same as ours nowadays. Lack of world building always seems to suggest that the authors themselves aren't comfortable in their world, aren't willing to explore it for themselves, either. As a reader you want to be able to feel that you know this world as well as your own, that you have an understanding of the presence of history and culture. Just think of Middle-Earth in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Although Logan's ambitions don't go quite as far as this, reading The Gracekeepers the reader can't help but desire to know more about this new world. Logan's word has been covered almost completely in water and is split between landlockers and damplings, both of which have developed their own cultures around their preferred habitat. Throughout the novel more information is added but I never quite felt as if there were explanations. There are hints, there are clues, but there are no real explanations for why the world has become covered in water or how these different cultures came into being. This meant that by the end of The Gracekeepers I was incredibly interested and fascinated but wanting more.

The Gracekeepers feels like a fairy tale, which is a major compliment, considering my passion for fairy tales, myths and legends. This category of literature exists through the sharing of strong story elements and through the passing down of these elements to the next generation of story-tellers. In a different blurb for this novel, it is said that Logan was inspired by Scottish myths and legends such as The Isle of Pabaidh and The Dracae. As mentioned above, the world building in this novel is interesting and that is definitely down to Logan's willingness to be inspired by myths. You see, in mythology and legend the world is recognizable. It is farmers farming, hills rolling and kings ruling.What is extraordinary are the people: it is them who make these stories fascinating and move the plot forward. They surprise you by being secretly magic or by being smarter than you expected.  The Gracekeepers seems to work along similar lines. The characters populating Logan's world are incredibly interesting and their actions make her world come alive. It is Callanish's respect for her role and its traditions that makes it interesting and makes it feel real, It is a sign of great characterization, but it also means that Logan's whole world is slightly clouded. The outlines are visible but not a lot is clear.

One of the things I loved about this story was that it centred around two female characters. Often, if a narrative is shared between two characters, it tends to be a man and a woman, or two men. Callanish and North have two very different stories that yet intertwine and together they cover a lot of different female roles. One of my literary pet peeves are characters restricted to a single role, to being "just a father", "just a mother" or "just the gay best friend". People are always different things to different people. To some North is a colleague , to others a friend and to a few a nuisance. She was someone's daughter, she will be someone's lover and someone's mother. The same goes for Callanish. They are strong female characters. Not stereotypical ones who wield guns, who get into fights and who always speak up. Callanish and North work with the hands they have been dealt by life and don't complain. They work hard and take responsibility for their actions. They make choices and stick with them and in the end, they are simply trying to survive in their world. Callanish and North are surrounded by a cast of incredibly interesting side-characters, some of which are granted their own chapters as well. The variety of characters and the subtle character development is what makes The Gracekeepers captivating. These characters all have a twist to them, especially those of the circus.

Logan's writing style is potentially best described with the label magical realism. The Gracekeepers has been described as matching Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter at their best. I can see where the comparisons come from since all three authors use a sense of legend and myth to inform their narratives. However, with Atwood and Carter the narrative always feel grounded and centred. The Gracekeepers floats, much like its protagonists, and works that way. Logan's writing weaves an atmosphere which is seemingly very restrained and quiet, even when things are heating up. It might not be to everyone's taste, but I personally loved the steady, calm pace of the writing which didn't let the narrative rush it. The language is as important to The Gracekeepers as the plot is. The language is also what allows The Gracekeepers to address some potentially intense themes such as pregnancy, being an orphan and militant religion.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Rich in language and interesting characters, Kirsty Logan's The Gracekeepers is a beautiful novel. Logan creates a fascinating world in which it is easy to lose yourself and crafts a plot which subtly develops until it ensnares you. I would recommend this novel to everyone who loves magical realism and interesting female protagonists.

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