Northwords Now

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The Knitting Station by Kirsti Wishart

Rymour (2021) £10.99

A Review by Kenny Taylor

The Knitting Station by Kirsti Wishart
The Knitting Station by Kirsti Wishart

‘A very Scottish saga of counter-espionage, knitting and sheep’. The subtitle of The Knitting Station, debut novel by the widely anthologized Kirsti Wishart, should serve to separate the Herdwicks from the Toggenburgs among potential readers. Those with a taste for surprising interweaving of story strands should flock to it. Others (their loss) might read no further.

This is a tale that takes seemingly familiar tropes – a Scottish island with quirky locals who might unite against a common enemy, an incomer trying to find mental solace in a remote place, a mysterious military base, a pretentious fashion designer – and delights in playing with them. Imagine Compton Mackenzie meeting John Buchan to co-write a novel. Instead of sipping a fine single malt as they work, they ingest magic mushrooms. That’s part of the vibe here.

Even the name of its reluctant heroine – Hannah Richards – seems a play on Buchan’s best-known character, Richard Hannay. And it may be no coincidence that Hannay’s final adventure, set just prior to the Second World War, is in The Island of Sheep.  Other parallels could be drawn, including in a plot that carries some echoes of The Thirty Nine Steps, where Hannay - who thinks of himself as ‘an ordinary sort of fellow’ - gets caught up in a life-threatening drama that includes spies and an unknown enemy.

Fast forward to the early 1960s, with the Cold War in its deepest freeze mode and the Cuban missile crisis looming.  Following a breakdown from the strains of having worked as a wartime code-breaker, Hannah and some fellow patients go to the island of Tharn – famous for the skills of its indigenous knitters – for a stint of ‘knitting therapy’. She’s a bundle of self-doubt and insecurities, often unsure if what she sees is real or imagined, and can barely hook two stitches together.

But her code-breaking experience has given her a nose for unraveling mysteries and seeing patterns that most people would overlook. Therein hangs the tale. As the craziness builds (are the island sheep mutants, and as dangerous as they seem?)  so do the tensions - between knitter factions, knitters and weavers, locals and soldiers. The Tharn yarn is rolled-out with skill towards dramatic climax, as Kirsti Wishart blends elements of Ealing Comedy and Bond film.

Delicious escapism and clever storytelling; ideal accompaniment for a dram by a winter’s fire. Just lay off the mushrooms and let the plot handle the hallucinogens. Roll-on Kirsti’s next novel.

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