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.


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