I spent much of my youth longing to be elsewhere, elsewhen. Perhaps not the wisest thing, to be dreaming of other places and times rather than being fully immersed in my own. Still, I’ve been thinking lately of how I need a holiday, a change of scenery. I feel like I have been stuck for too long on the same old wheel, going round and round, not knowing how to get off and strike out in a new direction. I want to have adventures; at the very least, some novelty to my days.
These kinds of wishes—for new places, new experiences—however, are fruitless. My body-mind barely has the energy for normal, everyday activities at the moment, let alone the idea of travel. Sometimes I can barely even read! And yet, when I can read, it is books that have been taking me to places elsewhere and elsewhen. After several months of reading far too much nonfiction, it is story that has managed to take me out of myself, to show me other views, other ways of being. I thought I would tell you about a few of them.
Deep in the Far Away (2014/2017) by Sarah Elwell
The first part of this novel was full of much that I expected, knowing from Sarah’s blog the kind of gentle, quiet things she loves, and the magical, mythic writing she is capable of. I found myself identifying with the plight of her character, Emma, stuck inside with a mystery illness, not feeling herself (indeed, not even really knowing herself):
… I have been unwell too long : outside of myself.
The thought makes me restless. I want to open my body to the wind like the earth does, let clods of poetry, and tears like dew, fall out. I miss dancing when no one is watching, and flower-gathering, apple-picking, taking rambling walks in random weather from wayward skies. I miss myself.
But it's just being unwell, that's all. It's not about the house or my husband. I'm suffering weariness, not sorrow. And so I turn away from the window, for after all what hope lies in dreaming alone? If I get dressed, go downstairs, something real might happen. (p. 12)
The writing is lush and poetic, the setting wonderful. Though as the story progressed, I found myself feeling a growing sense of unease. And this unease led to the second part, which is a complete departure from the first, unexpected and exciting.
You can purchase this novel from Sarah as a PDF for a small donation of US$6. I’d also highly recommend her six-part essay series, Suburban Magic.
The Dark Country (2017) by Sylvia V. Linsteadt
This novella is set on the fictional island of Kefthyra, somewhere in the ancient Aegean. It arrived beautifully wrapped with red string, stamped with Bear, Moon and Crocus, and the cover art by Catherine Sieck is stunning.
It is hard to know where to start with Sylvia’s writing. It is always so layered with meaning, evocative and poetic. She has an immense knowledge of so many things, from ancient cultures, to ecology, to myth and folklore, and she seamlessly weaves that knowledge into her narratives. I can only dream of being able to write like her.
The Dark Country is something of a feminist story, telling of the arrival of a patriarchal, destructive culture to the island, and the abuse of both land and women. There are three key characters: Lillet, a young bandit girl; Zola, a mother, renowned for her red kermes dye; and Arete, an old charwoman. Between them they represent the three aspects of women—maiden, mother and crone—and they are the heroines of the tale, bringing about a ruthless, beautiful justice, and bringing back the lost wisdom of their foremothers.
I loved this book. Like most of Sylvia’s writing, it spoke to me. One chapter gave me quite a visceral experience—I shivered at the strange beauty of the events, as if in some bone-deep recollection of truth. I think that is part of what I love about Sylvia’s writing—that it is mythical, magical and so elementally true, all at once.
Unfortunately, this book was only available as a limited print run. We can only hope that it, and more of Sylvia’s writing, become obtainable as more ‘official’ publications in the future. In the meantime, there is her debut novel, Tatterdemalion, which is wonderful; and her blog, The Gleewoman’s Notes, is a treasure trove as well.
Corrag (2011; also published as Witch Light or The Highland Witch) by Susan Fletcher
I listened to the audiobook of Corrag at the beginning of last year, and loved it, more than I’d loved any novel in a long time. Thus I have just started reading the book, to immerse myself in the Scottish highlands once again. Fletcher’s descriptions of the landscape are so vivid, I even dreamed I was there!
This novel is particularly powerful because it is based on real events (the Glencoe Massacre) and characters—Corrag was indeed a famous highland witch, though little is known about her. Still, Fletcher has conjured up a character of strength and wildness, and she tells her story in the most haunting way.
In a dank prison cell, awaiting execution, Corrag is interviewed by Charles Leslie. At first, he hates her. Yet Corrag summons up visions and feelings of such magic and love for the world that she manages to completely change the heart and mind of her interrogator. For all the harshness of Corrag’s life, it is also full of immense beauty. Everything about this book—the characters, the landscape, the language—is about as good as writing gets.
All of Fletcher’s novels are brilliant—I particularly admire her attention to detail—but Corrag is, to my mind, the very best. She writes:
… the theme of instinct, of faith in the self and inner wisdom, pervades the book entirely. It leads on to the concept of kindness, of tolerance of the other, on to the importance of caring for the world we walk in, and even to religion itself. It runs into everything, as if self-acceptance is in fact the source of it all. Such themes were relevant in a time of witch-burning and political intrigue; such themes, unfortunately, remain as relevant now. The joy of Corrag, for me, was her simplicity, her small beliefs: treat all lives well, including your own; be grateful for all that comes by you; believe, quietly, that there is something more to this life than we know. It was joy writing as a person with such a take on the world. (Susan Fletcher, ‘“An eye which sees the smaller parts of life”: How living in Glencoe brought the language alive’, pp. 11–12, in the bonus materials at the back of Witch Light, Fourth Estate: London, 2011)