ONCE upon a time there was a girl called North, who lived on a floating circus with her pet bear. North was an orphan, but did not mourn her parents. She did ‘miss the idea of a family’ though. The circus, which doubled as a ship called Excalibur, ‘was not a bad substitute’ for her mother and father. There was the captain and ringmaster Jarrow Stirling (also known as Red Gold), his evil lover Avalon, and his son Ainsel, whom Jarrow has decided will marry North one day. There were also three clowns: Cash, Dosh and Dough; two aerialists: Melia and Whitby; the glamours’, who made everyone pretty; and Bero, the fire-eater.
Why a floating circus? It’s because it’s the future, the whole world has been flooded and our great land masses reduced to archipelagos. Kirsty Logan’s debut novel The Gracekeepers is not, however, an environmental and psychological dystopia along the lines of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World. It is a fairytale voyage across oceans of whimsy. The Excalibur docks at whatever port will accept it and its striped sails fold out to become a big top. The travelling entertainers earn their living at these carnivalesque events, and then fold themselves back up and cast off again.
Logan conjures a strange future that has its roots in a nostalgic vision of today’s past. If it were an extrapolation of the present you might expect the leftover furniture of our world to go floating by once in a while: a bit of old laptop for instance, or a busted iPhone. You might even expect to find a few people huddled in the hollowed-out shell of a Boeing 747. But this is a world surprisingly well-adapted to a radically changed environment. Logan’s characters burn seal fat in oil lamps, listen to records (on a wind-up record player, presumably), write on rags (using what is not clear – ye olde feather quill and ink blotter?), and are forever eating what seems like delicious home-baking.
New worlds call for new words. The few remaining people who live on land are the ‘landlockers’, so called because the leftover soil is parcelled up into fiefdoms. Those born at sea are ‘damplings’, who refer to ‘landlockers’ in the pejorative as ‘clams’. Despite the demographic imbalance, the land-folk hold power over the damplings, who are made to wear bells round their necks, like cattle. There is mention of a government, of a ‘conservative island’ (although there is no progressive alternative); there are also laws, and a military ship with a commander who discusses ‘papers’ and flexes his domineering muscles. But there is no real internal coherence to Logan’s fantasy. That’s the problem with whimsy, it sort of goes wherever.
Clarity does emerge from the deeps once in a while. The world’s inhabitants talk of ‘olden days’, when ‘the great-great-greats’ lived, and when there wasn’t water, water everywhere. Some things never change: ‘Whatever the truth, over time the landlockers had learnt to blame the banks, the relentless drive for more money, for the rising seas and the loss of their land’. In place of the profit motive the landlockers have embraced what Tom Wolfe once called a ‘Back to the Mud’ primitive idealism. They aren’t very liberal, however. So, the flooded world has returned civilisation to a deeply conservative, druidical vegetable cult. Monotheism has been cast adrift – ‘revivalist’ boats bob around seeking to restore the old order – and ‘the gods’ are back. As is superstition, sacrifice and dancing around something called ‘The World Tree’. It is unclear how these nature rites relate to a government, a legal system, and a military. Then again, for those of us with a soft spot for agrarian mystics this anomaly can easily be overlooked.
It seems strange that landed pagans would be so illiberal but who knows what people will be like in a few years’ time. One erstwhile landlocker, Callanish, has been banished to the sea as retribution for her webbed hands and feet (a clue: she’s not just highly evolved). For her sins she is a ‘Gracekeeper’, which is someone who buries the dead at sea in ceremonies called ‘Restings’. ‘Graces’ are birds that live in cages above the dead during the mourning period. Before she encounters North, Callanish dreams of returning to land and her mother, Veryan. Jarrow, who is a born and bred landlocker living the dampling life, has recently acquired his family’s plot of land and wishes to bequeath it to Ainsel and North, and return the Stirling name to its previous lairdly significance. What he doesn’t know is that North is pregnant, but not with Ainsel’s child (another clue: the real father might not be entirely human).
When the Circus Excalibur is caught in a storm, a crew member dies and they are forced to land at Callanish’s sea-house to bury one of their dead. It is during this stopover that Callanish and North realise they have more in common than being strong independent females living a precarious life. North’s attraction to Callanish offers her an escape route from the Circus, which is slowly metamorphosing into a veritable soap opera: North knows that if Jarrow finds out she’s pregnant he might throw her off the Excalibur because she thinks he’s only keeping her there because he wants her to marry Ainsel, and once North’s secret is out Ainsel will have to own up to not being the father; but what we mustn’t forget is that Avalon, who is also pregnant, is trying to convince Jarrow that they should live on his plot of land instead of Ainsel and North, but that depends on Jarrow not knowing that his baby is really Ainsel’s baby; Avalon hates North and suspects she is pregnant, and is evil enough to use this information to blackmail North to get what she wants; and if all this interpersonal tension were to ever to become public it would cause one hell of a stushie on board the good ship Excalibur.
Callanish and North’s unspoken bond and their respective yearning to meet again (they’ve encountered each other before but don’t remember) propels the novel forward. They’re both unequivocally likeable so there can be no doubt in the readers’ mind how the book should end. It’s not the plot that keeps you reading though. Along with the rambunctiousness of the circus and the eccentric characters, the wind in the sails is Logan’s sprightly and original style. She is attentive to the slips of language, its mutations of sound and meaning. There are not only new nouns like ‘landlocker’, but there are new verbs and participles: to ‘winkle a cup of special tea’, for example, or ‘the dew plipped on to her shoulders’. Many of the neologisms are onomatopoeic – ‘thwick’, ‘soosh’ or ‘cwit’ – and Logan’s distinctive prose is heaving with sea-fresh metaphors: ‘the sky was barnacled with clouds’ being one of the best.
Perhaps it’s Logan’s linguistic playfulness, but once you’ve finished The Gracekeepers you realise you’ve had a bit too much fun. There is a bizarre innocence to the book. Because it’s not sinister enough to be a protracted fairy tale, and because Logan’s world is not comprehensively fleshed-out, and because the tone is childlike, and because Callanish and North are too cute to be adults, the only real conclusion is that this is essentially a children’s book, albeit with a hint of Hollywood escapism tacked on the end. The finale is a calamitous action sequence that could only ever result in a dreamy paddle into the orange glow of a comforting sunset.
Adults shouldn’t be worried though, it’s an excellent children’s book, so if you have to sit with your son or daughter while they read it aloud you won’t be bored. Although, be warned, there are a few scenes which are unsuitable for younger readers. But, like a fairy tale, it has some good black and white, progressive moral lessons, such as: a person’s appearance has no bearing on the quality of their character, and: a family doesn’t need to be made up of a mummy and a daddy; all a family needs is love, and they’ll live happily ever after. The End.