BOOK REVIEW / Thorfinn the thunder god: Beside the ocean of time - George Mackay Brown: John Murray pounds 14.99

GEORGE Mackay Brown's new novel, which was last week voted on to the Booker shortlist, begins thus: 'Of all the lazy useless boys who ever went to Norday school, the laziest and the most useless was Thorfinn Ragnarson.' This is pure Mackay Brown: an Orkney setting, an ugly duckling hero, the blindness of society to the qualities of the poet, a nudge of humour. The novel is obliquely autobiographical, the story of an unfolding imagination woven into an island's experience of change. It has the magic, but none of the fey rococo, of Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

Mackay Brown was born in Stromness, and except for a few years at university in Edinburgh, where he found a mentor in the poet Edwin Muir, he has remained there. Few people are more intensely rooted in place: his substantial output of poems, short stories, plays and novels is intensely connected with the islands; he contributes a weekly column to The Orcadian. 'There are stories in the air here,' he said in a recent interview. 'If I lived to be 500, I would still have things I wanted to write . . . These islands are a kind of microcosm of all the world: they've been continuously lived in for about 6,000 years, and the layers of cultures and races are inescapable.' Critical acclaim, an OBE and a steady stream of pilgrim fans have done nothing to alter his commitment; even the Booker would leave him unfazed.

Although he does not flinch from the harsh realities of depopulation, or technological change, as crofts tended by generations of islanders are flattened by aerodrome concrete, Mackay Brown chooses to celebrate endurance and resilience rather than bewail destruction and desertion. His Orkney boy goes to Byzantium with Viking rowers, cheers the triumph of the Scots over the English at Bannockburn, evades the Hanoverian press gang by simulated illness, and finally returns from Stalag 28B to find that all he needed was back at home all the time.

Heroes are feted, disasters absorbed. 'A wave in the Sound - one of those seventh waves that comes in higher and colder and more rampant than the six ordered predictable waves on either side of it - crashed against the round ancient ruin on the shore, and carried away another stone that had stood for 12 centuries.' The stones washed away one by one measure the advance of civilisation, but not the taming of fate. 'The things we plan for always turn out different, and not always for the worst, though we might have a heavy heart now and then,' says Thorfinn, accepting at last his widowed father's new wife.

A third and equally important strand in the book is the finding of inspiration - through the varied faiths of monks and ministers, by the mysterious agency of the selkies, in Thorfinn's elusive muse Sophie, or simply by watching succeeding generations grow up. These themes recur and vary like the eloquent weather, which is a constant background to the episodes in the story. The safe familiar rhythms of the soil compete with the addictive uncertainty of trusting one's life to that 'mysterious, dangerous, fruitful element, the sea'. Thorfinn is a talisman name, an amalgam of Thunder god and Norse hero, but also one of the founding Earls of Orkney. Like a relay runner, he takes up the croft and fishing boat of Jacob Olafson, whose life we witness from 'new-born child, in his little ship of time, his cradle' to sudden death as an old man.

Mackay Brown is an incomparable writer, a master of his chosen craft. It is above all the manner of the telling that makes this a great book. His personal palette of language is as instantly recognisable as a painting by Matisse, or a Bach fugue: needlesharp imagery, deft use of sudden sound and lingering echoes, highlights of lightning movement and appalled stillness, background layers of silence and absence. He shows us people's doings; by some mystery we know for ourselves their feelings. Intimate, humourous, effortlessly combining the strands of history and folklore, the past and the present, this is a deceptively simple book, like a tale told to a child. But its echoes sound on unforgettably. A whole universe is created from a grain of Orkney sand.

(Photographomitted)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones