We’re sometime in the future where the world is split into landlockers and those who live on the sea.
In a world that is almost entirely sea, placing your feet on land was a privilege that must be earned.
We follow two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, performing Restings for the dead. She lives on a tiny island by the graceyard.
‘That’s the choice…Here or there. Dampling or landlocker. Sea or land. Man or woman. But this is something different. Don’t you see? We made our homes on the sea and on the land. We can stay here in the graceyards and be nothing. I mean, be neither.’
This choice over land or sea becomes key for both women. Callanish has chosen the graceyard over land as penance for a mistake. North is tied to the sea and the circus but Red Gold, owner of the circus and father of North’s fiancé, Ainsel, wants to buy them a house on land and restore his family’s former glory as landlockers.
There are two problems with this from North’s point of view: neither North nor Ainsel actually want to marry each other and North hates being on land:
Red Gold carried on a steady stream of exclamations as the three of them followed the gangway up from the port, their leather shoes soft on the wooden slats. The tin-sided towers looked more ramshackle than ever, the waves slapping at their bases. North could not understand why anyone would choose to live there. The crew called the landlockers ‘clams’ for their brainless need to cling to the shore. Was the desire to be near land so overwhelming that people would accept these shoddy homes, hoping that over the years they could creep gradually closer to the centre of the island? Soil was dirty, and it smelled; North wanted nothing more than to be away from it.
There’s also a third problem, Red Gold’s wife, Avalon. Avalon’s pregnant and desperate to bring her child up on land so she’s not exactly pleased when she discovers her husband’s decided to use the money she though he was saving to buy them a house on his elder son and fiancé. And it’s North who’s going to pay.
When people are cruel it’s often said that they have no heart, only a cold space or lump of ice in their chest. This was never true of Avalon. She had no heart, everyone knew, but there was nothing cold about her. In her chest burned an enormous coal, white-hot, brighter than the North Star. North knew the truth about Avalon: she was made of fire, and she would burn them all.
Unfortunately for North, she’s also somewhat of an easy target. This is largely due to her circus act which she performs with her bear. It’s this which makes her – and Circus Excalibur – special: there are many circuses on the sea but only one with a bear-girl. They kiss and dance while Red Gold plays up the bear’s ferociousness, but North sleeps in his arms in her coracle as it floats on the sea at night. North also has something in common with Avalon – she’s pregnant – but as the novel begins only she knows it and only she knows who the father is.
Callanish’s story is a little more straightforward. She lives at the graceyard, tending to the birds and performing Restings. She sometimes rows over to the next gracekeeper, Odell, but mostly her life is dictated by the sea and by death.
Callanish and North’s paths cross when one of the circus members dies and they need a Resting to be performed. Callanish is waiting for a delivery of graces following a lengthy storm, so the circus has to remain by the graceyard overnight. Both North and Callanish are unable to sleep and end up talking under the moonlight. Callanish reveals that she knows about North’s baby and North tells her how the pregnancy occurred, a confession that will bind the two women. But both of them have other things to deal with before they can meet again.
The Gracekeepers is a wonderful novel for several reasons: the world which Logan creates is fully realised. The suggestion that most of us will be living on the sea whilst only the rich can afford to stay on the land chimes with current developments in society. Callanish’s graceyard and the isolation of her job, her state of mind and of her location is convincing and weirdly appealing – is it just me who’d love to live in a cottage on a tiny isolated island? The job’s not so cheery but on balance… And the circus, oh the circus is just magical. (Those of you who read the blog regularly/follow me on Twitter know about my circus obsession so please excuse me while I gush over this one.)
The circus has acrobats – Sometimes they said they were siblings, sometimes a long-married couple. – a maypole – the pole, their hair, their bodies, all wrapped tight so the crowd couldn’t tell which were girls and which were boys, so they were all girlboygirls – a horse show, a fire-breather, glamours and clowns, and, of course, North and her bear.
Slowly, slowly, she used her hidden razor blade to slit the front of her dress…North stood, and she was not a she.
Her body fitted the silhouette of a boy’s. Her small breasts, her growing belly: all wrapped tight, all padded and bound in white. Her body gleamed like a marble statue. The styled tumble of her dark hair, now that the crowd looked more closely , seemed more like the mane of an unkempt boy. Blink and she’s a girl. Blink again and he’s a boy. Once more he turns to a she, right in front of your eyes.
Logan infuses it all with colour and the illusion of decadence. She also uses the circus and its place on the margins of society to explore ideas about gender and identity.
The circus, the exploration of gender and outward appearance and the touches of magic realism allow for easy comparisons with the work of Angela Carter. Ideas about climate change and the hint of dystopia lead to a mention of Margaret Atwood. But The Gracekeepers is more that the sum of those two writers; Kirsty Logan is a talent of her own, a very special writer indeed and I love spending time in the worlds she creates. I can’t wait to see where she’ll take me next.
(If you haven’t read Kirsty Logan’s short story collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, you really should. Click on the title for my review.)
Thanks to Harvill Secker for the review copy.