IAN Stephen was born and brought up on Lewis and still lives there. He worked for many years as a coastguard and from his previous books it is evident that he is a skilled fisherman and sailor; his passion for and knowledge of the sea, tides, winds, fish and boats are manifest in his writing. Though he has published short stories and has written plays, he has mainly been known as a poet, and despite this doorstopper of a prose work, I think that will continue to be the case.
At their best his poems are refreshingly lucid, exact in their language and expressive of a real engagement with the environment, especially where the natural world and the human world meet. He does not allow himself to be overly lyrical or use poetic vocabulary, but chooses his words economically and with precision. He often uses the technical or scientific names for their expressive power as well as their accuracy. In that respect, his poetry leans towards that of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Like Finlay, Stephen is not so much interested in the picturesque qualities of a landscape, but is more intent on reading it to reveal its character and history and human significance, as in ‘Skyline’:
I like living with our skyline
broken sometimes by the tractors
taking a breather of agricultural
neutral at the aluminium gate.
Given his economy of language in poetry, it comes as a surprise to find that this book runs to more than 550 pages, as if he felt compelled to compete with the Bible. To be fair, he is working on a broad canvas which takes in three generations of a family living on Lewis. Peter MacAulay, the protagonist, writes his will, and in the process takes us back through his life, from early childhood, through adolescence to maturity and his marriage to a German woman Gabrielle, and the subsequent birth and growing up of their daughter Anna. The relationship with Gabrielle looks as if it might become central to the story after he meets her; then, curiously, it is allowed to fade away. When eventually they come to separate, the separation is more or less glossed over.
Peter’s mother and father also tell something of their lives in the form of journals they have written, and in sustained speeches. The story of his best friend Kenny’s descent into alcoholism is another narrative thread we are told about but are never really shown. So there are fictional elements here, but I referred to A Book of Fish and Death as a ‘prose work’ because it shies away from being a fully-fledged novel. Characters and relationships are not developed and the narrator’s account of his own life reads more like memoir. Other parts of the book offer a chronicle of everyday life on Lewis. A good deal of the island’s history is covered, including the well-known story of the Iolaire disaster, a ship that was carrying sailors who had fought in the First World War back to Lewis and which hit rocks and sank a few yards offshore and only a mile from Stornoway harbour.
There are also many long discursive passages about other historical events such as the Cold War, the cod wars and especially the Second World War, in which Stephen attempts to view them from a Lewis perspective. These ponderous passages slow what little narrative momentum the story builds and should have been severely edited, jettisoned like so much unnecessary ballast from a fishing boat once it has landed its catch. At times, too, the rather casual, conversational narrative tone becomes chattily over-familiar or jocose: ‘But since I really am preaching now, ladies and gentlemen, I exhort you. Go thee now. Go and perform the latter-day action which is known unto the multitude as a google. Do a google on blitzkrieg.’
In compensation, there is a wealth of anecdote, creating a kind of patchwork quilt of narrative. The chronicle and the memoir elements combine quite well to realize a gritty portrayal of life on Lewis, and sometimes Stephen’s poet’s eye for detail and his linguistic precision make for a strong sense of authenticity: ‘The fry was taken from the spillage from the crans, swung ashore in creels filled from the hold. We’d go back to the terraces with handfuls, held out ahead. We’d leave behind, drying on the concrete, the cuddies we’d caught. These were small fry of lythe, saithe cod and whiting.’
Even when the activity described is as everyday as cutting peat, Stephen uses the names for peat for their expressive qualities – ‘fad’, ‘cep’, ‘cruach’ – as well as accuracy, and describes the whole activity in great detail. Such tasks are part of the fabric of island life, and the book offers a convincing account of survival in a harsh, even hostile environment. Stephen’s picture of Lewis life is less dour than the stereotypical Wee Free, Bible-thumping one we have come to expect. The influence and activities of the kirk certainly come into the picture but by no means dominate it. And the older generation, Peter’s ‘olaid’ and ‘olman’, seem very easy-going and tolerant, even when as a teenager he grows his hair long and starts to dabble in exotic, Eastern religions.
A Book of Fish and Death is a strange read. It is by turns novel, memoir, chronicle and rambling discourse, and we must negotiate our own way through it without much guidance from the author. Towards its end, Stephen himself acknowledges the ‘organic’ nature of the enterprise: ‘I don’t know what this collection of writings was meant to be. It’s just happened. Made without any plan. So it might indeed be like boatbuilding by eye. But there’s a big danger in that. The possible gain is fluency of line. The risk is that you come up with a shape that’s not quite there yet. It only suggests what you should make next time.’ That sounds like a poet trying to find his way into fiction using only poetic ideas and imagery. Unfortunately the ‘fluency of line’ applies to only some parts, and ‘not quite there yet’ is about right as a description of the overall shape which results.
A Book of Fish and Death
Saraband, £20, ISBN 978 1908643667, PP576