The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

GracekeepersThe 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.

gracekeeperShe 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.

birdcageIt’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.

Further Reading

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.

The Night Circus

120912_2017_GreatChrist6.jpgI bought this back in November and put it aside to be my post-Christmas read, a time when I am happy to indulge in a little magic realism, which this promised to be and most certainly was.

Since finishing it, I have come to see it more and more as a metaphor of the reading experience itself, Le Cirque des Rêves is a circus like no other, it opens at night and closes at dawn, full of enchantment and extra-sensory pleasures, where everything exists in black and white and whose followers, les rêveurs (dreamers) wear a splash of red to identify themselves.

Now, sitting in this cave of lightly perfumed silk, what had seemed constant and unquestionable feels as delicate as the steam floating over her tea. As fragile as an illusion.

night circusEach tent offers an extraordinary experience and like a good story, invites its readers inside to share the temporary illusion. It struck me the way the circus moves from city to city, from country to country with its fans following to be a little like the blogosphere itself, this place where we easily circumnavigate the globe, visiting blogs and reading/experiencing their content, like les rêveurs ourselves.

We lead strange lives, chasing our dreams around from place to place.

The Night Circus follows the lives of two young people, Celia and Marco. Marco is an orphan plucked from obscurity in 1874 by a somewhat slow aging illusionist to be trained as his protégé, a pawn in a seemingly never-ending game he continues to wage against Prospero the Enchanter, who chooses to nurture (in his own cruel way) a daughter he discovers he has when she arrives on his doorstep in 1873, with a suicide note pinned to her coat written by her mother. The two youngsters follow the different schools of thought of their masters, destined to meet and compete in a game where only one can be victorious and where the rules are deliberately obscure.

Along the way a catalogue of characters are drawn into this web of entanglement, along with the reader, never quite knowing exactly what drives and controls the outcomes, but mesmerised nonetheless within the fascination and charm of the circus and its characters.

BettleheimThis book prompted me to pull out an old copy of Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment – The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales; a child psychologist, he was a fan of the value of  fairy tales for young people, believing they provided a safe environment to liberate their emotions.

… how wandering in enchanted worlds, children develop their own sense of justice, fidelity, love and courage… not as lessons imposed, but as discovery, as experience, as an organic part of the experience of living.

Books like Erin Morgenstern’s  The Night Circus, invite us to return to that world as adults, discerning a slightly different but no less valuable meaning, as we have grown older and a little more cynical, able now to find deeper meaning in the analogies offered.

It is a tribute to the imagination, to a darkness that is not despairing and the light that always finds a way to reignite the flame.