Delicate hints of the supernatural tease the reader in Linda Cracknell’s debut novel Call of the Undertow. However, her beautifully realised depiction of the friendship between a traumatised woman and an other-worldly boy is strongly grounded in the real world, in the physical land and seascape they both love and the treacherous emotional terrain they negotiate in their disconnected ways.
Cartographer Maggie Thame has shed the skin of her previous life in Oxford and fled to a remote Caithness village, renting Flotsam Cottage where she works online, producing maps of places she has never been to. Her current project is an atlas for Nigerian schools.
Invited to speak on map making to a class of eight and nine year olds, she is intrigued by the ‘befringed creature’ called Trothan who is not obviously boy or girl and is ignored by the teacher. When she asks the Primary Five class what they think her tools are, the initial suggestions of computer, GPS and Google Earth, are subtly trumped by the child’s perceptive offer, ‘your eyes’.
Later, from the staffroom, Maggie watches the playground goings on and the pupil with the ‘sloping gait of a boy’, yet trousers tucked into pale blue wellies decorated with large white daisies. ‘When his fringe flicked up, she saw the pointed, almost elfin-shaped face’ and was even less sure of the gender, until an uncanny dexterity with a football convinces her he’s a boy.
On one of her long walks, she is pleased to come upon Trothan working on the map homework and says she’ll look forward to seeing the finished version. But when he offers to bring it round, she is instantly wary: ‘‘“I meant at the school.” Her voice whipped out quick and hard, a defence; driving him beyond her walls and fences.’
Slowly Cracknell develops the tentative relationship in which Maggie coaches the boy how to capture facts about the land on paper and he finds ways to use more than his eyes and his imagination. He captures emotional and very private truths and secrets about the local place, wildlife and people, alive and long dead, who feature in his intricate drawings.
There are stunning descriptions of all that Maggie sees and feels as the tragedy in her past leaks into her dreams and then her waking moments. She tramps the wind-swept bay, watches the sky and its birds, the seals in the water. She maps Lagos in the cottage, walks and talks with Trothan, learning as she teaches. Her sister Carol worries from a distance and the villagers seem to turn against her. Is she destined to relive something terrible? Is she in fact behaving badly, taking an undue interest in this talented, mysterious youngster whose parents seem content to let roam the hills and burns, forests and beaches alone at all hours?
Early in the book, a snowman appears in the cottage’s garden with no footprints around it. The calm that Maggie had been seeking is threatened and she wants to punch its head off. ‘She felt as if a handful of dark birds had been thrown up within her, thrashing beaks and wings against confining walls. Then they dropped to accept their earthbound trap, motionless except for the occasional blink of an eye.’ Cracknell’s writing enchants and haunts as those thrashing, then quiet birds look for a way to fly free.
Published by Freight Books. (£8.99)