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Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover

Polygon (2021) £13.59

A Review by Valerie Beattie

The Revenant Voice

There is a kind of haunting in Merryn Glover’s Of Stone And Sky that is both natural, or normal, and also intimately connected to nature. The novel’s natural representations of haunting reside in the memories and feelings that linger when a loved one has gone - the multifarious ways the mind and body register sudden sensations which, in the blink of an eye, flit in and about the rhythms of daily life long after the event has passed. They are set alight perhaps, by a chance happening, a piece of music, a book, scent or image that somehow evokes the lost loved one. Such lingering is especially tangible when the departure has been untimely or when its circumstances were troublesome. In these cases it often happens that thoughts and sensations take on a different, disquieting import, drawing the mourner back, splitting their experience of time in a way that blurs the distinction between the departed and the living, thereby offering a glimpse of, and a momentary encounter with, a dead world. This is what happens when for instance, transported by a specific melody, we excuse ourselves by saying we are “lost in thought”. Or, indeed, lost in a world of the dead.

            The haunting that is linked to nature is a literal one, and entirely apt given the novel’s emphasis on the Munro family’s (and their community’s) dependence on and love for the land. During the seven years between Colvin Munro’s disappearance and the eulogy which opens the book, the Cairngorms’ landscape has gifted various intimate tokens of his life, as if nature herself has become Colvin’s final confidant and spokesperson. Seven years is the biblical timeframe set by some societies (including Scotland) to mark the period between a person disappearing and remaining absent before they can be declared legally dead. Yet Of Stone and Sky makes no such declaration. Rather, the first time we meet the principal narrator, Colvin’s foundling sister - Mo -  she makes the emphatic and startling claim in her eulogy that, “of one thing I am certain: Colvin Munro is still alive.” Whether readers interpret this literally, figuratively or both will depend on what each one brings to the book, but for me it foregrounded the deep sense of intimacy and eternity surrounding the interrelationship between human and nature in the novel, a little like Mary Oliver’s treasure of a poem, I Go Down To The Shore, wherein the sea responds gently to the speaker with, “Excuse me, I have work to do.”

            The chapters in which the intimate tokens of Colvin’s life make their appearance show nature both tending to and returning them, item by item, over a period of three years. Nature’s role thus advances to become a type of intermediary, both preserving and expanding on conversations about Colvin, illustrating his influence (or lack of) on others, and highlighting pivotal conversations between those who cared about him and those who didn’t. Most significantly, nature’s gifting of Colvin’s possessions activates a form of a long goodbye; one which, ultimately, can promote healing.

            The novel’s structure was, for me, a little distracting. The story is told by two first-person narrators: Mo, a very modern minister who recalls events using the past tense, and Sorley, Colvin’s younger brother, who speaks in the present. Sorley’s voice is largely confessional, and we’re alerted to his perspective by a change in chapter title foregrounding his name. While this is instrumental in signalling a change in narrative perspective to the reader, it’s more the intermittent nature of Sorley’s voice in the novel that felt strange. But perhaps this was the point. Certainly, it’s made clear that Mo has long forfeited any permission she had to speak on Sorley’s behalf, so his unmediated representation accords with the plot line, functioning as a counterpoint to Mo’s. Still, its sporadic insertion runs the risk of affecting the development of a rapport between readers, Sorley and the flow of the plot.

            The concord between the living and the dead, presumed dead or disappeared is crafted beautifully and effects its own quiet, soulful rhythm in the main characters’ lives. We see this initially when Agnes, a young girl at the 1939 Kirkton Highland Games, meets Gideon Munro and shares a passionate embrace with him. Upon his return from the World War Two in 1946, Agnes eagerly seeks him out. Sadly, she sees he’s a different man, who now has one foot walking with the living whilst the other trails behind beside the dead. 

            Of Stone and Sky progresses to take readers into a factually and emotionally rich story of the Munros and other key families in the area, including those connected with Rowancraig, a farming estate in the upper reaches of the Spey. All of this takes place during the last half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Harold Macmillan’s 1957 pronouncement that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’ was both empathetic and prescient; it didn’t apply to the likes of the Munro family, and it likely never would. Their poverty is tangible, their life a hopeless battle against too few resources that leave them with no option other than to experience life itself as a burden. Colvin will eventually leave after decades of struggling on his farm just as his father and mother did.

            The level of detail in Of Stone And Sky concerning local politics, power struggles, national policies and tradition and place, produces a comprehensive picture of a community whose inhabitants are as interdependent as they are desperate for independence - particularly financial. Pivotal characters are all too aware of the manifold indignities that befall those reliant on tradition, or, indeed, the decency of others.

            The novel’s final chapter draws together the spiritual strands woven throughout. In the midst of tragedy, loss and life-changing physical and emotional pain, Of Stone And Sky shepherds us to feel our part in the existence of something greater, kinder, more powerful and eternal. Ultimately, as the novel’s title indicates, it is nature herself which offers the portal to this remarkable feeling, this magical knowing. As Mary Oliver asks in The Swan, “And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?”

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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