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Review: Orkney, By Amy Sackville

How do I love thee? Let me go on and on

Richard is 60, his wife 21; they fell in love across the lecture theatre. They honeymoon in Orkney, and she – remaining nameless in Richard's first-person narration – spends most of it on the beach, looking out to sea, while he, in turn, obsessively watches her.

Orkney, the second novel from young British writer Amy Sackville, is certainly evocative: poetic, lyrical, lush in texture. But while this is its strength, the line between beautifully written and over-written is a fine one.

Richard and his wife, as you might expect of an English professor and his pupil, are in love with words; their private game is one of escalating synonyms: "'Lead.' Cigar smoke. 'Ash.' Sere. Slate. Cinereal." Clearly Sackville, too, is in love with words; Orkney is stuffed with fulsome description. An evening "purpled into gloaming"; champagne "train-rattled, air-pressured, sea-rolled … opened with an irrepressible pop and spill". One adjective or clause will never do when three or four might: a gale "clawed about inside [the house], in every corner, searching, a stealthy intruder restlessly riffling pages and poking into every cranny and crack, wickering through every crevice, searching, searching, frantic, thorough; dislodging the quiet spiders clutching stubbornly to rafters."

We also get an awful lot of Richard's drooling descriptions of his lover, her pale skin, shining silver hair, slim body. He claims it is a "marriage of minds" but the reader gets little of her academic brilliance or, indeed, her mind. Richard describes her as "cool … pale, detached" from other students, and she remains unknowable to him too. And she surely remains a mystery to the reader.

For Richard is an unreliable narrator – a fact flagged up, perhaps a little heavy-handedly, in a re-telling of their first encounter. He's convinced she wore a purple jumper; she claims she's never owned one. What starts out as simple uncertainty becomes increasingly creepy and possessive, as Richard attempts to maintain a hold over their narrative: "It is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone, while she is in her bath, and not here to interject with her nonsense about not wearing purple."

As a study in obsession and a man's mythologising of his lover, Orkney has power. For it to work, she needs to remain aloof, but that does create a vacuum at the novel's centre. Indeed, there are points when you almost wonder if she's not some figment of Richard's imagination. His academic speciality is, with schematic neatness, "enchantment narratives in the 19th century" – and always the women. The text is littered with them – Nimue, Lamia, Melusine – while his wife tells Richard tales of mermaids and selkies. These bewitching creatures resonate with his own description of her as a mysterious temptress, ultimately unknowable, and endlessly, dangerously, drawn to the sea.

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