The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan is a book I picked up at random purely based on the blurb. A light fantasy escape read for the upcoming holiday. I listened to an interview with the author just to be sure (linked below), liked what I heard and decided to read it. And it turned out to be the perfect holiday read just as predicted.
Set in an imagined world where the ocean has flooded most of the earth, most people now live permanently at sea. They are referred to as damplings and those that remain on land, who have an air of self-imposed superiority and suspicion of others are known as landlockers.
‘We shouldn’t welcome damplings like this,’ murmured Callanish’s mother. ‘And at night-time, too, when good people should be ticked up safe in their houses! What are those circus folk hiding in the dark, hmm?’ She patted Callanish’s hands, making sure the gloves were on. ‘Some islands don’t even let damplings come above the blackshore. If they want to perform, they can do it in the daytime with waves lapping at their ankles like they’re meant. Those people belong in the water. They’re dirtying the land.’
Most of the story takes place at sea, with the floating circus Excalibur and seen through the eyes of one of its performers, North, whose parents died when she was young. North performs a captivating dance act with her bear, her closest companion, though she is afraid for him, for though he would never harm her, his instinct to protect is strong and dangerous.
The circus moves from place to place, floating between the scattered archipelagoes that are all that remain of earth; they perform to survive, the only way they can eat, although their leader, the ringmaster Red Gold, has alternate plans for North and his son, to try to change that, to establish a presence on land, one that neither youth is particularly enthralled about and that his wife Avalon has become obsessed over.
‘North never felt comfortable with her feet touching land. She didn’t trust its steadiness, its refusal to move or change in the honest way of the sea.’
Callanish is the gracekeeper, graces are small, fragile birds kept by her and used in a grieving ritual as part of her job in the Graceyard, they serve as a reminder of the duration of the mourning period, they are starved and their death signals the end of that period.
She is the sea equivalent of a funeral home, living isolated in her small house with only the birds and sea-life for company, tending graces and watery graves along the equator. People bring their dead to her for Resting, she performs the ritual and then lays them to rest at the bottom of the ocean in a shroud, tied to the birdcage containing the grace. We don’t know quite how or why she came to be doing this job, only that it was due to something she believes her mother might never forgive her for, penance for a mistake she made long ago.
‘For one adult Resting she was paid a mix of food, supplies and tradable goods: ten eggs, a thick wedge of bacon, a hank of fabric for letter-writing, a lump of copper the size of her thumbnail.’
When the Excalibur is forced to visit the gracekeeper, she meets North and is immediately drawn towards her, it causes a restlessness in her that sees her make some changes and seek resolution to the questions that plague her daily.
It is an interesting story about these two girls, the strange worlds they inhabit and the circumstances that are thrust upon them, forcing them to either accept or rebel. Accept what others want for them or rebel to lead a life that better represents who they really are and to follow their instinct.
There is a whole section about another group of sea-dwellers called the revivalists, which didn’t really fit into the story for me, they were a kind of evangelical group, where Callanish meets a former performer from the Excalibur, and tries to find out how to find the floating circus.
It’s an intriguing read that reminded me of The Night Circus, in the same way that there is something magical we sense about this world that is left to the reader’s imagination, Kirsty Logan provides all the elements and introduces the characters but doesn’t inhabit them in such depth to create a solid picture, there remains an element of mystery and curiosity. For example, I didn’t know the meaning of the word coracle, but once I looked it up, that one word alone created a whole new exercise of imagination to understand how they might have fitted behind the circus ship Excalibur.
It would make an excellent picture story book, I found myself wanting to see exactly how the author visually imagined this world.
Review by Susan at A Life in Books – The Gracekeepers: A rattling good tale, beautifully told
Interview with Kirsty Logan at Edinburgh International Festival
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the UK publisher via NetGalley.