‘My tale is of the sea. It takes place in the far north, where ice has broken land into jagged rocks, and where black and fierce tides wash the shores. Hail is flung far on lashing winds, and winters are long and dark. Men haunt the sea, and the sea gives up a glittering harvest. And it is said that the people of the sea haunt the land.’
As we said a sad-sweet goodbye to the Angel of the North…
… (our annual ritual of leaving and returning…)
…something made me turn to those opening words of the prologue to Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea.
This 1998 Puffin paperback edition…
…was nestled in a bag by my feet in the car – along with all my other Barter Books summer finds. We were driving away from the far north of England and towards the autumn; the winter already a furthest-north-thought creeping steadily southward from invisible horizons behind us.
I discovered a few years ago, on another long road journey, that I’m able to read in the car as long as we’re still on the motorways; twisting lanes play havoc with my head if I try to focus on the page. But with three hundred miles of motorway from the North-East back to the South-West ahead of us, it felt like a good journey of the mind, and an honour paid to an always complex sense of parting, to allow this tale of the sea, and of rugged northern lands, to carry me home.
And so it was that, as we passed through a bright land of harvest and surreal summer-green (the trees and hedgerows kept strangely lush and leaf-abundant by exceptional amounts of rain) my thoughts were called towards ice, and crofters living close to the rock-rimed bones of remote islands; edgelands where the breath of survival moves with the sea.
In her Author’s Note at the back of the novel, Berlie Doherty tells us that: ‘Some of the stories woven into Daughter of the Sea are based on ancient tales from Iceland, Scotland and Ireland.’ And in the narrative, she achieves that feeling of a generic North – an evocation of shared cultural strands that knit place, experience and a Far North landscape of mind.
Philip Pullman, quoted in the blurb on the back cover, describes the ingredients of the book’s atmosphere perfectly:
‘Tension, emotional honesty and more than a touch of cold northern poetry as well.’
– Philip Pullman, Guardian.
A slender book, ostensibly for children, but with tendrils of deep archetypal concern that hold fast for readers of all ages, Daughter of the Sea casts its net far around a teeming weight of significance – just as the tight-woven, sparse words of folktale reach to catch big ideas, glinting with truth and meaning.
Berlie Doherty tells a tale of humans and selkies locked in an interrelationship which both washes towards the land, and pulls away into unknown deeps. People of the land are drawn to the sea, and the people of the sea are drawn to the land. The netted strands that join them are irresistible – and yet fraught with difficulty and danger. It is a relationship of both gifts and destruction; of both lifeblood and the ever-present threat of death.
It is an interdependence that reveals the very edges of life; the deepest concerns of spirit and survival, where the natural order is broken at your peril. The people in this novel’s pages live with a heavy sense of submission to what the sea must take in return for what the sea relinquishes. They live with a pact that, if broken, exacts terrible price – great sorrow and loss. But, it is also a pact that can bring vital restoration and healing. In these natural cycles of giving and taking, there is a balance of joy and sadness; of wishes and what must be; of possession and letting go.
Daughter of the Sea is written with a lilting call of voice. Its prose is an invitation to the fireside, whilst the snow and ice grips the darkness in the howl of the wind outside. The sea not only haunts the book’s characters and story, but its whole tone too. We feel the touch of ancient depths of human experience in its telling; the accumulated voices of many folk long gone, as the waves of the narrative take up each character and deliver the timeless and interwoven longings and acceptances of their lives…
…The life of Gioga, the daughter of the sea – delivered up by the waves to the yearnings of a childless couple; of Eilean o da Freya, the ‘crab-woman,’ who guards a secret, and lives alone in a den beneath an upturned boat, her story told in the ‘language of her singing’ which ‘has lilts and hisses in it, as if she has listened too long to the sea.’ And Hill Marliner, the mysterious white haired stranger who wears ‘a full grey cloak’ and whose appearance answers to the descriptions in Eilean’s tales of ‘the lord of the oceans’ who ‘rides the waves from morning to night, from ice to ice, from the world’s end to the world’s end.’ And of the islanders, who weave their tales through the cycles of nature; cycles that permeate every moment of their existence:
‘My tale is of the daughter of the sea. The best way to hear the tale is to creep into the lee of the rocks when the herring boats have just landed. The gulls will be keening around you. The women hone knives on the stones, and their hands will be brown from the wind and the fish-gut slime. And as they work they talk to each other of the things they’ve always known.
That’s when the story’s told.’
– (Berlie Doherty, opening to ‘Daughter of the Sea.’)