In the opening chapter of The Valley at the Centre of the World, Shetland-raised writer Malachy Tallack’s first novel, two of the main characters, David, a crofter, and Sandy, the ex-partner of David’s daughter, come together to slaughter and skin some of David’s lambs: an act Tallack describes in detail.
‘Lifting the flap of pelt that faced towards him, he pressed the knife beneath, separating the skin from the flesh, like a label from a parcel. He laid the blade down and put the his right fist into the space he’d created, running his knuckles up and down the join, gently at first then harder, forcing it back, widening it until his whole hand could fit inside. It was hot and clammy in there, beneath the fleece, and Sandy felt he was entering some private, forbidden space, the heat a kind of warning.’ Tallack is commonly regarded as a landscape writer, one of the chroniclers of wild places and preservers of ancient words. His first book, Sixty Degrees North, was a memoir-cum-travelogue which took readers on a round-the-world trip along the 60th parallel north from Shetland through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Scandinavia and then home again. In The Valley at the Centre of the World, however, which is set in Shetland, he is less concerned with the contours of the land – with vertiginous cliffs, bleak moorlands or the iridescence of light on water – than with in the way in which human beings interact with it and with each other; and how those interactions, often in themselves prosaic, bind disparate individuals and stabilize drifting communities.
Tallack is fascinated by work and the way it shapes relationships; the novel is shot through with passages like the one above in which physical tasks, and the co-operation and compromises required to complete them, are the medium through which taciturn men (and occasionally women) communicate. Sweat-inducing graft – the shifting of a wardrobe, or, in one memorable scene, the burying of a dead sheep –takes on an almost spiritual dimension; providing both a refuge from outside worries and a space to think, it is at the root of what makes us human. Sandy, a part-time taxi driver, is dismissive of Up Helly Aa: Shetland’s famous fire festival and the event for which the archipelago is best known. ‘Macho, chauvinist bollocks,’ he calls it. For Tallack, it is the less spectacular rituals – the coming together of men to mull over over the way in which a particular problem should be approached, for example – that have the deepest resonance.
The novel’s dust-jacket carries praise from Bernard MacLaverty, whose own Midwinter Break, is a tribute to small domestic moments and there is a similar quality to Tallack’s writing. The relationship between the steadfast, almost plodding David and the more restless Mary has much in common with the one between Gerry and Stella, the couple whose marital frustrations are at the centre Midwinter Break. Like MacLaverty, Tallack is adept at capturing both the everyday intimacies that keep people together and the slow-burn frustrations that drive them apart.
At the core of the novel is the question of belonging. This is a long-standing preoccupation of Tallack’s, who was born in London, moved to Shetland when he was ten and was about to move back down south to live with his father when he was killed in a road crash. Sixty Degrees North is subtitled ‘Round the World in Search of Home’ and in it Tallack talks of his sense of dislocation, of not quite fitting in. In The Valley At The Centre of the World, Sandy has had a similarly unsettled childhood. He is from Shetland, but not from the valley and doesn’t know if he should stay now his partner Emma, who brought him there, has gone. While they were still together, she told him (in her Shetland dialect): ‘We are tied to da islands by elastic. Du just has to decide how du lives with it. Either du goes awa and stretches that elastic – gradually it will slacken off and du can breathe easier – or else du just gives in.’
Another resident, Alice, whose husband has just died, has come to the valley to process the grief that has left her ‘dizzied by the passing of time; straitjacketed by the endless motion of the world’. A successful crime writer, Alice has decided to strengthen her connection to the area by compiling a forensic account of its history and its flora and fauna. Now working on a chapter about invertebrates, she spends hours tramping through fields and along the shoreline looking for earthworms and molluscs, caddisflies and lacewings. Later, she thinks she can breathe life into her compendium by delving into the life of Maggie, an elderly resident who has just passed away, leaving a set of journals behind.
Meanwhile David, who once worked in the oil terminal but now spends most of his time tending sheep, has no doubt about where he belongs; the valley runs through his blood. He fears the way of life he has always known is slipping away. In a world where ‘money [has] become easier to earn than food [is] to grow’, much of his land is now used for grazing. His daughters have left to set up home elsewhere. The death of Maggie, the only other indigenous resident, provokes an emotional crisis and perhaps the most poignant passage of the novel. ‘The thing he felt ending was not just one person, or even one generation. It was something older and had, in truth, been ending for some time. It was a thread of memory that stretched back for as long as people had lived in this place. It was a chain of stories clinging to stories, of love clinging to love.’ In a desperate bid to keep the valley alive, David takes matters into his own hands, offering a young couple from Lerwick the lease of one the houses at a knock-down price and encourages Sandy to take over Maggie’s croft, which David has inherited. But it soon becomes apparent that growth has to take place organically, as a result of careful nurturing, like the plants that Mary helps weather the winter storms.
If The Valley at the Centre of the World is about continuity – about preserving the past while securing a future – then Tallack plays his part, writing in the Shetland dialect or rather in a watered-down version of it he thinks readers won’t find too intimidating. In a note at the end he explains he has kept the use of vocabulary that would be unfamiliar to outsiders to a minimum, which is a shame. One of the joys of reading books set in places with their own distinctive vernacular is revelling in unfamiliar rhythms and discovering unusual and evocative words for rain or clouds or birdsong. You do get a feel for the Shetland accent in the dialogue, but I would have preferred the whole book to have been immersed in it.
When you choose to write about the humdrum routines of everyday life, there is also a risk your book will become humdrum, unless it is expressed in language that transcends the subject matter or it is replete with quirky observations that force the reader to see things from a different angle. Tallack’s writing is only sporadically magical and there is very little humour so that the narrative can some times feel as steadfast and plodding as the crofter at its centre.
His descriptions of the harsh weather are vivid: ‘It had come on unnoticed, a gust that failed to subside, but now it whipped up the valley,snapping at his cheeks and in the corner of his eyes. Salt hammered his lips. Everything leaned inwards.’ But the landscape – which ought to be a character in itself – remains dark and featureless, a murky blur of fields and rain. Perhaps this is an asset, this lack of sentimentality or sheen, but none of Tallack’s characters, even David, exudes that passion for the land that is communicated so strongly in the likes of Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. Early on, Sandy says: ‘Hills, fields, sheep, birds: that’s all there was in this valley and he’d felt no tug of connection to it’, and one can only sympathize. Even by the end of the book – when winter has yielded to spring and Mary’s cobalt lupins have finally bloomed, it’s unclear exactly what beyond inertia or a sense of duty – would draw you to the valley or hold you there.
It is, instead, the characters and Tallack’s exploration of love, loss and community that keep the reader engaged as the novel reaches his climax. He is good on the ache that comes as your children grow up and you have to renegotiate your place in the world, but it is in his descriptions of Alice’s grief that Tallack is at his most perceptive. ‘There were occasions when she had tried to call her husband’s face to mind for company and for comfort and he was not there, like a book missing from a shelf.’ On another occasion Alice suddenly realizes that no-one has taken a photograph of her since her husband’s death. It is as if she too has been effaced. Her attempt to resurrect Maggie is also an attempt to resurrect herself, but it soon seems as though it will be foiled. As the old women’s journals yield nothing more than boring records of weather, work, and food, the question posed is: ‘What makes up a life?’ When Alice presses David for anecdotes that might give an insight into her personality, he says: ‘Dere’s aalwis stories’, suggesting that we are much more than the sum of the bits of tat we leave behind; that we are the impression we make on the people we hold dear.
In the end, Alice finds a way to finish her book and re-enter life’s fray, not vicariously through Maggie, but by becoming an integral part of the valley’s ongoing story. One transformative moment changes her from a curious onlooker to an integral member of a community which may yet survive. Like what has gone before, the novel’s conclusion is conventional: all the storylines are neatly resolved, though the aura of mystery that has been created around Maggie – the only real source of suspense – is allowed to fade away into nothing. As a portrayal of life and work in a remote community, Tallack’s first novel has much to commend it, but even stories about everyday life require a healthy injection of drama. The Valley at the Centre of the World is a paean to lives more ordinary which never quite becomes extraordinary.