I can’t remember quite why I borrowed this book when I saw it on the ‘New Books’ shelf at the library. Perhaps I’d heard good reviews of it or maybe it was its setting in Shetland that attracted me. I enjoy Shetlands on the ABC and I heard a cracking interview with the author of Vera and Shetlands, Anne Cleeves. What ever drew me to it, it’s a beautiful book that I almost didn’t want to end. It surprises me that the author is a young man. The book felt as if it were written by an older person (think, perhaps Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead or perhaps Elizabeth Strout’s work) in terms of its treatment of the relationships between people, infused with a sensitivity to place and space.
The Valley at the centre of the world is exactly that – a single valley with just five houses clinging to The Road that runs above and parallel to ‘The Burn’, the waterway that runs to the sea. The use of ‘The’ is intentional: there is only one. In its harsh but beautiful isolation, there is a timelessness about The Valley, although people are coming and going. Older man David has lived there all his life, as did his father and grandfather before him. Although he does not consciously think of it this way, he owns the valley. His wife Mary, came there thirty years ago and their daughters Kate and Emma have both shifted away. Sandy, a newcomer, was their daughter Emma’s partner and came back with her to the Valley but the relationship has broken up. He stayed on when Emma left, and with a respectful relationship to his inlaws (do you have inlaws if you’re not married?) and now landlords, he takes over the cottage and croft left vacant when Maggie, a very old inhabitant dies. There is Terry, a morose alcoholic single father, and Jo and Ryan, who have shifted into the Red House from the city, with Ryan a go-getter spiv taking advantage of the cheap rent. Finally, there is Alice, a crime writer (who reminded me not a little of Anne Cleeves herself) who has moved to the valley after the death of her husband. She has decided, somewhat presumptuously I think, to write about the Valley and is particularly drawn to Maggie as a character, hoping to find some secret or depth about this woman who had spent her whole life in the Valley.
The book revolves around the lives of this small group of people, who each have their griefs and flaws. It is a slow book, just as life itself in The Valley is slow. Soap opera? Perhaps, but it’s soap opera written with insight and generosity.
What is striking is the use of dialect in the conversation. There’s a glossary at the front, but it’s more the sentence construction and small words that slows you down as a reader. I don’t subvocalise or even mentally vocalise when I read, so this was a strangely auditory reading experience for me.
I really loved this book, and didn’t want it to finish.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library