Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

No Man Is an Island

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

No Man Is an Island

Article excerpt

The Valley at the Centre of the World

Malachy Tallack

Canongate, 337pp. 14.99 [pounds sterling]

In May 2017 the Icelandic writer Sjon gathered scribes and academics from across the world to Torshavn in (islanders favour "in" rather than "on") the Faroe Islands for a conference named "The Tower at the End of the World". They had one thing in common --they were all islanders, from Cape Verde to Crete and Jamaica to Japan, all creating work preoccupied with places where the only barrier is the sea. This summit took its name from the Faroese writer William Heinesen's 1976 novel The Tower at the Edge of the World, which, as the conference notes stated, "found in his sea-locked microcosmos of a town a platform for a string of novels and short stories that resonate with people from all around the globe".

The Scottish writer Malachy Tallack would surely have been at home here, not least because the title and overall theme of Heinesen's novel (to see William Blake's "world in a grain of sand") echoes throughout his debut novel The Valley at the Centre of the World. Having lived in Fair Isle--halfway between Shetland and Orkney, it's the most remote inhabited island in Britain and edited the magazine Shetland Life, he understands islands. He has also published a travel-memoir, Sixty Degrees North, in which he followed the 60th parallel line that passes through Shetland, and The UnDiscovered Islands, a lavishly illustrated cataloguing of an archipelago of places that have existed only as myths, phantoms or islands that have simply disappeared.

The Valley at the Centre of the World is a book about life in Shetland in the 21st century. At its core are the challenges for those attempting to continue the crofting culture in the face of globalisation. Tallack gathers a cast of characters into a small valley, a world within a world, where each acts as a cipher for the different social strands which, when woven together, constitute a modern community.

Alice, a writer, is the outsider who embarks upon researching a history of the valley in an effort to rebuild her life, following the death of her young husband. In Shetland she identifies a place that can be known and contained in words, "not just as it once was, or believed to be, but as it is here, now". Old-timer David might disagree; he is the patriarchal figure working the land just as his ancestors did, his thoughts shaped by the valley. David believes that "life would be so much simpler if people dreamed only of one place", though he is not so entrenched that he doesn't recognise a growing necessity for new blood, young families and the passing on of skills, history and language.

Indeed, Tallack uses a Shetland dialect known as Shaetlan (or Shetlandic) in the phonetically replicated dialogue of his characters. …

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