Since he was a young writer, Andrew Greig had known the poet Norman MacCaig. Though born in Edinburgh, MacCaig was closely associated with Assynt in Sutherland, an area he often celebrated in his spare, evocative poems.
MacCaig died in 1996; in one of Greig's last visits, MacCaig set him an appealingly medieval-sounding quest: "ish for me at the Loch of the Green Corrie... ask for a man named Norman Macaskill... if he likes you he may tell you where iis".
Four years later, with MacCaig long gone, Greig and two companions head to Assynt on the quest. Happily, Macaskill does appear to like Greig and identifies the correct hill loch. The subsequent story is told in short chapters that reflect the fly-fishing rhythm of Cast and Retrieve, the narrative alternating with reflective material.
But there's more to the book than that. Greig casts a line at the ancient geology of the Highlands and dumps the reader teetering on the brink of Deep Time; he considers the contrast between the Clearances and more recent community land buy-outs. Most significantly, he describes his long association with MacCaig and provides some biographical sketches of the poet, conscious that "outside Scotland I meet good poets, well-read poets, who have barely heard" of him. Particularly valuable are the MacCaig poems that punctuate Greig's prose, one a previously uncollected work.
Alongside the biography there's memoir; Greig turns his focus inward to his own losses, loves, bereavements, illnesses and pain. Aside from a hilarious interlude where he ruefully recollects involvement in a failed pop duo called Fate & Ferret I found this inner journey a joyless one, lacking the beauty and hope, the light and space, of the outer journey to the lochan. It's as if Greig's own vigil on the abyss of Deep Time has had its impact.
Much of the book is in the vein of the new nature writing, but with elements of confessional memoir, fascinating musing about poetic method, history and geology, and biographical material about MacCaig. Consistently well-written, sometimes dazzlingly so, this book is difficult to slot into a genre. Let's just call it literary non-fiction. Oddly, a note on the copyright page begins "This book is a work of fiction": all perfectly clear, then...
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