It’s difficult to decide whether the main feature in this novel is the relationship between the honeymooners or the Orkney seascape. This is a novel with a very voyeuristic feel – a nameless young bride with long, silvery hair sits for hours gazing out at the sea. Inside the rented cottage, her husband Richard, a literature professor forty years her senior watches her, wondering what she finds in the sea. She’s told him she’s from this area, but will reveal little else about her background, as mysterious and shifting as the sea upon which she gazes. From our viewpoint, we watch them both as the events of the week are narrated through Richard’s voice.
This is a mesmeric novel, full of enigmas and questions – even the facts around their meeting are open to interpretation, with her questioning his seemingly solid recollection of the early days of their courtship. Nothing feels concrete – except for his unwavering obsession with his young bride, which dips once or twice into the possessive, but it’s not an oppressive viewpoint – we are comfortable looking at her through his lens. Perhaps this is because a lot of the narrative is given through their conversation and we are directed by her perceived reaction to his beatification of her: “I’m heart-sore for wanting her”.
Like Richard, we are soon bewitched by his strange and beautiful bride. Sackville includes just enough to make her seem tangible – the encounter with a local family on holiday an example where some of the magic sloughs off and we see her as a normal, if slightly eccentric young woman.
For me, the truly enchanting element of the novel is the description of the sea and the way in which she melts the bride into these descriptions in passages such as these:
“The height of those waves, now. The wind scatters the sky, growing steadily stronger; it whips up the cliffs in a spray, a plume like smoke, and her hair streaming upwards like that blown-back fall, too, like a fountain.”
The novel is partitioned almost like a daily diary, with Richard flitting back from the present to the past, building a clearer picture of their relationship as he recalls their first meal together, the details of which are questioned by his bride when he fondly recollects his reminisces. The days of the week are almost one of the only concrete concepts in a world where the sea infuses everything with its scent, taste and aura. Even the landmass is susceptible: “The island to the west has smeared into the sea again.”
But it is the bride who pulls us in. Her husband describes her as some sort of nereid, a sea-sprite, an enchantress and Sackville rarely uses language to describe her that isn’t tinged with the otherworldly or some sense of water: “her eyes bruised with purple rainclouds”. It’s testament to Sackvilles’ skills that we find her so intriguing as we learn little to nothing about her and there’s no real sense of plot development in the novel – the mundanities of a newly-wed couple on honeymoon. For this is a very difficult book to put down – and even harder to shake off.