The Gathering Night, By Margaret Elphinstone

This beguiling historical novel imagines the inner and emotional lives of Mesolithic-era humans
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The Independent Culture

Loss is the driving force behind the narrative of Margaret Elphinstone's ambitious new novel. The character whose absent presence exerts the greatest force is Bakar, who vanishes while out hunting. In vacillating first-person narratives, the effects of this loss are chronicled as they ripple through the lives of his mother, sisters, brother-in-laws, nieces, cousins and aunts. In her short stories, poetry and eight novels, which include The Sea Road, Hy Brasil and Voyageurs, Elphinstone has pushed her characters to the geographical and temporal peripheries: they have inhabited islands and frontiers, and the far reaches of history in the Stone Age. They are here tested by emotional extremes.

Employing her considerable skills as a historical novelist, Elphinstone imagines the lives of the hunter-gatherers who thrived in the period from the end of the Ice Age until the adoption of agriculture. Although the archaeological record for the Mesolithic era is minimal, one event known to have occurred in the period was a tsunami which struck around 6150 BC. This disaster is the catalyst for The Gathering Night, and indeed natural disasters are recurrent in Elphinstone's work, passionate as she is about chronicling environmental themes and pitting human will against chance. Imagination is well-woven with avid research, conjuring in detail the coasts along which hunter-gatherers sailed in skin boats resembling coracles; and the environment in which they lived, worked, loved and lost.

The bonds between mother and son transcend the particularities of time and place and are here movingly traced, as Bakar's grieving mother Nekané grows to feel estranged from the world: "Sometimes I stretched my hand out into the dark, full of longing – for what I didn't know – but whatever it was slipped from under my touch." Hungry and disorientated by grief, she follows her visions and goes in search of her lost son ("my purpose burned inside my ribs and kept me from freezing").

This is a story about survival, and the devastating pain that can cause one to no longer care about existing. When Bakar's mother learns of her loss, she finds it difficult to go on, and "the small things we do every day to protect ourselves – the way we take care to be warm and dry in winter, cool in summer – the way we eat when we're hungry and drink when we're thirsty and sleep when we're tired – the way we enjoy and comfort one another – none of these things seemed to matter anymore".

But this is also a tale about what might make one care again. The idea of clan-like living is explored in Elphinstone's earlier work and is to the fore again here; the threads that bind people together and those that might tear them apart; that might be the source of both life and death. There is a poignant undercurrent of hope throughout: "It looked as if we were going to live well." Weaving in the tsunami of 2005, The Gathering Night is also a parable for how we might live well in our own times.

"Nature" would not be graced with a separate word in Mesolithic culture, with the trials and tribulations of these humans co-existing in the same holistic world with animals, rivers, mountains; inextricably linked, not separate. It is Elphinstone's formidable depiction of nature which is the greatest strength of this atmospheric novel. Nature is depicted as both cruel and benign, from the harsh and biting winter in forbidding terrain where the family pull lily-roots from the freezing mud, to a time of plenitude, when birds flutter throughout the land.

Water and islands are at the heart of her work and here a river runs throughout the narrative; Elphinstone is in her element in depicting the sea flooding into estuaries, white gulls wheeling overhead. Here the river is a metaphor for storytelling, and this indeed is a novel which flows at its own pace, with many voices trickling into its main current. The powers and pitfalls of storytelling are explored and also exemplified; the voices of the multiple narrators oscillate so rapidly that it is difficult to build up fully-developed, three-dimensional characters.

Whose stories shall we believe? This question is forced when a stranger from a rival tribe appears seeking shelter and telling stories of a disaster in which people perished. Nekané returns as a Go-Between, one able to commune with the spirits, but the voice of a woman does not hold much weight among the Auk people and, as the clan come together for the annual Gathering Night, she must struggle to be heard. The reader is ultimately engaged by Elphinstone's beguiling prose to listen well to the strange stories of struggle, stoicism and survival coursing throughout this challenging novel.

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