Kirsty Logan, ‘The Gloaming’
by Tom Byam Shaw
illustration by Enxhi Mandija
Kirsty Logan’s latest novel follows her collection of narratively linked short stories, A Portable Shelter, and a quick glance at the plot will tell you that she is in top form. An island, slipstream-magical-realist elements, and a queer adolescent romance tinged with the supernatural. So far, so consistent with her output. But what sets The Gloaming apart from her debut novel The Gracekeepers is a sense of place that, for better or worse, her prior book lacked. Logan has switched the opaque secondary-world soft fantasy with an island that, though it remains unnamed for the duration of the book, is suffused with Scots and Scottishness.
Our protagonist is Mara who, after suffering a personal tragedy, is adrift in the small social ecosystem of her island. This situation is complicated by the arrival of Pearl, a performer who stars in an act as a mermaid. But is it just an act? Mara’s island is one riddled with magic and saturated with stories. Mara’s relationship with Pearl, their story – or their subversion of one – is what the book concerns itself with.
As with most of Logan’s work, language is the star of the show not just in buoyant and dreamlike prose, beguiling and winnowing sentences peppered with metaphors, but also in the way the book is structured. All chapters are titled with their own Scots words, in addition to the one that gives the title to the book itself, and these add another lacquer to the rich sense of place already built by the content itself. Though I heard Logan say that she generally looks for Scottish words to use in her writing, I can’t help but feel that they fall more significantly here.
As for the content, there’s almost a doubling of the concerns of The Gracekeepers, with grief blossoming into adolescent romance. The first is accomplished through an elegant metaphor that is as quickly complicated as it is established. On the island people petrify when they die, and their statues are taken to the top of the cliff – a comforting point of closure, if the body is recovered. As far as the romance is concerned, the chops established in Gracekeepers are built upon satisfactorily here. Pearl and Mara are certainly on a collision course with each other, but the nature of that collision is ambiguous, thrilling, and dangerous. From the beginning, there are secrets between them, tensions that animate their relationship and spur the reader on.
However, some reviews of The Gloaming, with which I agree, point to the flatness of the characters: the fact that they function more as devices or metaphors — or, at worst, ciphers — than characters themselves. It is frustrating in a work with such depth of language and setting, when this depth is not extended to the players in the drama. In a story like this, which behaves as if it is driven by the characters, it is sorely needed. With so much of Logan’s fiction, short and novel-length, being centred on two people at romantic crossroads, people may start to wonder if they have been here before. A frustrating sentiment, considering almost everything else in the novel is unique and worth experiencing.
Despite these complaints, The Gloaming is certainly a novel that builds on the success of its predecessor. Fans of Logan’s work will feel rewarded by the familiarity of the world they will find themselves in, and newcomers will get as good an introduction as they can get to one of the most talked about contemporary Scottish authors.