The Val­ley at the Cen­tre of the World by Malachy Tal­lack

The Guardian - Review - - News - Ian San­som

A writer’s ca­reer is like any other ca­reer: some peo­ple get go­ing early, get lucky and go straight to the top; others take a lit­tle time to find their way; some of us are for­ever stop­ping off, be­com­ing way­laid or de­tained; and some never fol­low an ob­vi­ous path. The Val­ley at the Cen­tre

of the World is Malachy Tal­lack’s third book, and even now it’s dif­fi­cult to know which di­rec­tion he is go­ing to take. Orig­i­nally from Shet­land, he has re­turned again and again in his books to the ques­tion of is­lands and iso­la­tion. His first, 2015’s 60 De­grees North , was a clas­sic young man’s trav­el­ogue, with added grit. His sec­ond, an il­lus­trated guide to imag­i­nary and in­vented is­lands,

The Un-Dis­cov­ered Is­lands , veered un­ex­pect­edly to­wards cof­fee ta­ble ter­ri­tory. And now The Val­ley at

the Cen­tre of the World is per­haps his strangest book of all: a novel in which al­most noth­ing hap­pens, and in which ev­ery­thing changes.

Sandy has re­turned to Shet­land with his girl­friend Emma. Brought up in an ex-coun­cil house in Ler­wick, he now finds him­self liv­ing next door to her par­ents, David and Mary, who are crofters in a re­mote val­ley. At the be­gin­ning of the novel, Emma sud­denly leaves to go back to Ed­in­burgh, and Sandy finds that he both be­longs and doesn’t be­long. It turns out that there are others in the val­ley in the same uncer­tain po­si­tion: Terry, an al­co­holic; townie in­com­ers Ryan and Jo; and Alice, a crime writer, who has re­treated to Shet­land af­ter the death of her hus­band, and who is try­ing to write a book, pro­vi­sion­ally ti­tled The Val­ley at the Cen­tre of the World. “The thing about an is­land,” re­flects an older woman called Mag­gie, “is that you feel you can know it. You feel your mind can en­com­pass ev­ery­thing in it, ev­ery­thing there is to see and to learn and to com­pre­hend. You feel you can con­tain it, the way it con­tains you.” Tal­lack’s novel is a demon­stra­tion that no is­land – and no per­son – can ever truly be en­com­passed.

The ac­tion takes place over the course of about nine months – a long ges­ta­tion, as Sandy un­der­goes a kind of re­birth. His mother turns up, hav­ing aban­doned him as a child; he has a brief flir­ta­tion with Jo; he re­flects on his re­la­tion­ship with Emma; and he learns some croft­ing ba­sics from David. The tone of the book is quiet and se­ri­ous, the prose through­out re­strained, the pace steady, cer­tainly com­pared with the lyri­cal and ro­man­tic drift of his ear­lier books. A typ­i­cal un­hasty de­scrip­tion: “He poured a bowl of ce­real and set cof­fee on the hob to boil. He ate at the ta­ble, then stood by the win­dow to drink the cof­fee. From there he could see the val­ley laid out in front of him, the brown thread of the burn un­spool­ing through the crook of the land.”

The book is not with­out ex­cite­ment and in­ci­dent: there is a pa­per trail of di­aries and let­ters, which may or may not teach Alice some­thing about the life of the val­ley; Ryan and Jo are up to no good; Terry’s drink­ing leads to ter­ri­ble con­se­quences. But per­haps most im­pres­sive are the care­ful de­scrip­tions of Sandy learn­ing to be a crofter, in­clud­ing one long set piece in­volv­ing the dis­posal of a dead lamb.

He felt like lean­ing over and pet­ting the lamb, then, stroking its tight, greasy wool and rub­bing his thumb across its nose, as if he could re­vive it, a day too late. But he re­frained. There wasn’t much com­fort to be found in a car­cass.

Another source of fas­ci­na­tion is Tal­lack’s ren­der­ing of Shaet­lan, the Shet­land di­alect. He goes so far as to add at the end of the book an un­nec­es­sary but rather charm­ing note on his use of lan­guage.

I have tried my best to get the feel­ing of Shet­land di­alect and the lo­cal ac­cents, by pho­net­i­cally repli­cat­ing as best I can, the gram­mar, the rhythms and the sounds of the lan­guage … I hope the reader will soon find them­selves able to hear the voices of the char­ac­ters.

In­deed one can – though hear­ing is not quite what hap­pens when read­ing di­alect in a novel. What hap­pens is rather that we voice it, and so in a sense be­come the char­ac­ters. This, in the end, is how we en­ter The Val­ley at the Cen­tre of the World. Ah’ll laeve dee wi dat thocht, as one of Tal­lack’s char­ac­ters might say.

To buy The Val­ley at the Cen­tre of the World for £12.74 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Splen­did iso­la­tion North­mavine, Shet­land

The Val­ley at the Cen­tre of the World by Malachy Tal­lack, Canon­gate, £14.99

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