Back when I was working as a library cataloger I used to keep a running list of those titles that really appealed to me as possible reads. (two notebooks full) One of those titles was “Call of the undertow” by Linda Cracknell. When I read the blurb and realized it was set in northern Scotland I was sold. As a result, it has been lingering on my TBR for almost two years! Somehow, the review commitments tend to win out over my own personal ‘want to reads’.
A beautifully written, haunting tale of motherhood, guilt, myth and redemption set on the rugged coast of Caithness at Scotland’s furthest edge.
When Maggie Thame, a childless forty-something from Oxford, relocates to a remote village at Scotland’s most northern edge, it’s clear she’s running away. But to the villagers the question remains, from what?
Pursuing her career as a freelance cartographer, she lives in self-imposed isolation, seeking refuge in the harsh beauty of her surroundings. This is disturbed when she falls into an uneasy friendship with Trothan Gilbertson, a strange, other-worldly local nine-year old. Like Maggie, it’s unclear where Trothan really comes from, and what secrets might be lurking in his past. The lives of both become intertwined, with violent consequences that will change the destinies of woman and boy forever, forcing Maggie to confront the tragic events that first drew her to this isolated place.
In this, her debut novel, award-winning writer Linda Cracknell explores themes of motherhood, guilt, myth and the elemental forces of nature in a lyrical, taut and haunting account of damaged lives seeking redemption.
Maggie Thame has relocated to the atmospheric Caithness Coast of Scotland from Oxford, England. Forty, childless and newly single, she harbours a deep guilty feeling of shame. She longs to escape her memories and start life anew. Still, she is plagued by disturbing dreams of a girl’s tiny red polka dot shoe…
“An hour or two’s walk helped with ideas for work as well as keeping her body from seizing up and rescuing her mind from its shadows.”
A freelance cartographer, Maggie can work from anywhere, so she rents ‘Flotsam Cottage’ and continues working on her maps. To take a break from her work, she walks for hours at a time – familiarizing herself with her new surroundings. As she gradually meets some of the locals during her rambles, she becomes known to them as ‘The Map Lady’. She becomes enchanted by the plethora of wildlife in the area, and likes to sit quietly on the cliffs watching the puffins frolic.
The local primary school teacher invites her to speak to the class about her cartographic skills. It is then that she meets a peculiar young boy named Trothan Gilbertson. He seems ‘different’. An odd child who is ostracized by his peers and seems to have little parental supervision. At first she was uncertain as to whether he was male or female as his hair was worn very long and he wore wellies that were quite feminine. Pale blue with white daisies. He is very skilled at making maps however, so Maggie gradually takes him ‘under her wing’ and advises him how to further improve his skills. Unsettling though, as he seems to come and go at will, turning up at Maggie’s cottage uninvited and letting himself in… Trothan draws a map of the local area that is worthy of entering in a competition.
Maggie also meets Graham who works at the local ‘bird center’. He educates her on the myriad birds who inhabit the area and it is to Graham that she runs when she is attacked by nesting terns.
When Maggie’s sister Carol comes to Scotland to visit, she persuades Maggie to drive her around the area and visit the local pub. Until then the school teacher, Trothan and Graham were her only friends. Carol doesn’t seem to approve of the strange boy and is uncomfortable with the wild, nature-rich locale which her sister has chosen to call home.
As the weeks pass, Maggie forms a strong attachment to Trothan. She worries that he is neglected by his parents, and begins to think motherly thoughts toward him.
“If she’d been this child’s mother she wouldn’t have stood back and let him be ignored and ostracized; working alone, playing alone; tolerated rather than encouraged.”
An unsettling event happens at a school awards night. In presenting his map, Trothan has simultaneously divulged the secrets of the village. The following day, Trothan goes missing and the police and some journalists interrogate Maggie. Alas, it seems her personal ‘history‘ in Oxford has followed her to her new home…
This debut novel’s setting was indeed almost like a character unto itself. Rich in atmosphere, and written with skill, it is more literary fiction than mystery, though it does contain some mysterious elements. The reader’s mind cannot help but think of Scotland’s mystical history. Of seals and of selkies. I realize that the ending of this novel might be too ‘open-ended’ for some, but I’m grateful that I finally got to read “Call of the Undertow“. I recommend it to readers who enjoy character-rich novels with a strong sense of place.
“Call of the undertow” was published in 2013 by Freight Books. I purchased a Kindle copy of the novel from Amazon.ca It can be purchased at the following online booksellers:
Freight Books has posted a video clip of Linda Cracknell reading from “Call of the Undertow”.
From Freight Books: Linda Cracknell writes short stories, novels, drama for BBC Radio Four, and creative non-fiction. She won the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday short story competition, and was shortlisted for the Scottish First Book Award for her story collection Life Drawing (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2000) and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award for environmental writing. Her second story collection A Searching Glance was published by Salt in 2008. She was the recipient of a Creative Scotland Award in 2007 for a project linking walking and writing. Linda edited the anthology A Wilder Vein (Two Ravens, 2011) and has contributed wide range of other anthologies and magazines. She lives in highland Perthshire.