Review: The Gracekeepers, A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
Selkies and Sperm Donors
After her bright debut last year with The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, two more books by Kirsty Logan arrived on the scene in 2015: Gracekeepers, her debut novel and A Portable Shelter, another short story collection.
The Gracekeepers is set in a world where the oceans have swallowed the land leaving only a few precious islands that a travelling circus sails between. The performers are also the ship’s crew, a close-knit family bound by necessity, but with tensions and secrets that also threaten to pull them apart. Beyond their own conflicts, there exists a larger cultural divide between the ‘damplings’ who live at sea and the ‘landlockers’ who live on the islands. Logan creates a fascinating world full of rituals, folklore and history that comes to life through vivid portrayals of sensory experience: the smell of leaf mould, the soothing sliminess of seaweed, the sound of waves slapping a boat. After cataclysmic environmental change this society is now divided between preserving its heritage and adapting to the present. While Callanish’s aquatic mutations point to a future where mankind adapts to this new water world, others grieve personal losses and the loss of the land.
Many of the stories in A Portable Shelter echo The Gracekeepers’s fascination with longing and grief, wisdom and folly. The collection is framed as a couple telling tales to their unborn child to prepare it for the world it is about to enter. Logan continues to play with folklore and fairy tales, finding their relevance to modern life in questions about pregnancy and preparing for motherhood, absent fathers (who are sometimes selkies or sperm donors), mourning and moving on, circuses and the sea.
The first story in the collection, ‘Cutting Teeth’, finds a pregnant huntress contemplating motherhood. She is caught in a fierce conflict between her wild way of life, hunting by moonlight with her companion wolf, and her cosy home and safely human partner. Here, as in many of the stories, the wild, timeless world of fable mingles with the starkly contemporary. Night-time hunts are described poetically with invented compounds such as “moonglow-meatsweet-teethgleam” that favour sensation over order, but it’s a lyricism that crashes up against Wikipedia and descriptions of kilt-wearing American tourists.
The discord between fairy tales and reality arises repeatedly throughout the collection, particularly stylistically. Logan’s prose can be exquisite and ornate, sometimes verging on cloying, but she can also draw you on-side with colloquial first person narration. Often she writes between the lines, letting you see what the narrator doesn’t tell you. ‘The Perfect Wife’ is told by a woman consumed by love, the prose is heightened and ecstatic but a few undercutting lines of dialogue divulge the full brutal disparity between her perception and her situation.
Logan can also build up a story in precise increments, one small detail at a time, as she does in ‘Flinch’, about a man drowning in secrets. Character and tension accrue so subtly you hardly notice you’ve reached the edge of your seat.
A Portable Shelter and The Gracekeepers seem to be regarding each other over the dividing line between novel and story collection. The stories in A Portable Shelter, with their distinct styles, don’t seem to have been written with the framing premise too strongly in mind but rather fitted together afterwards. The Gracekeepers is more structured. Like the circus ship, it tows behind it a string of coracles where the crew’s lives are divided neatly into chapters, brought together and propelled forward by the main drive of the plot. The Gracekeepers may be less emotionally intense than Logan’s short stories, but it makes up for this with the smooth precision of its interlocking parts. A Portable Shelter is more haphazard but full of wonders.
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
Harvill Secker, RRP £12.99, 293pp
A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, RRP £9.95, 180pp