This book promised many things. It bears a cover blurb from the legendary Ursula Le Guin, and its back cover compares it to Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood ‘at their best’ – and that’s pretty high praise, by anyone’s standards. This was a book I waived my usual rules for: I didn’t read any of it before it came home with me, because its beautiful cover seduced me completely.
Yes, dear readers. We have been here before. Me and beautiful covers… sigh. Sometimes, it doesn’t end well.
Now, before I carry on: there is plenty to love about this book. For one, its language. At several places I stood or sat amazed by Kirsty Logan’s turns of phrase, and how she makes things which seem so ordinary – apples, trees, the sea – seem so new and never-before-seen through her wonderful descriptions. Her writing is impeccable and beautiful, and it certainly has echoes and traces of the work of Atwood and Winterson and Carter, and even the mighty Le Guin herself. However, there’s no debut novel in the universe which can bear the weight of being compared to these luminaries of the craft. The Gracekeepers reads beautifully, and its setting (otherworldly? Dystopian? A bit of both?) is intriguing and rewarding and immersive, but there are problems, to my mind, with the plot.
And yes. I have read Carter, Winterson, Atwood and Le Guin. I’m aware that sometimes, in those books, plot takes a back-seat to characterisation, language, and world-building. Even bearing all this in mind, I can’t help but think that The Gracekeepers didn’t quite work for me.
The book is set on a world where land is scarce and coveted, and most people live on the water, and it tells the interweaving stories of two young, very different, women. One, Callanish, is a ‘gracekeeper’, a person charged with the proper burial (at sea) of the dead who are brought to her, and the correct observation of mourning traditions. As she is the title character, I expected that she would be the central figure in the story, but she’s only one of many important players. The other main character is North, who lives and works with a travelling circus along with her beloved bear, who forms part of her act. The circus is jammed full of colourful, overwhelming characters – the ringmaster Jarrow (called ‘Red Gold’, for reasons which were never clear to me, by North); his pregnant wife Avalon; Jarrow’s son Ainsel who is promised in marriage to North (despite the fact that neither of them want one another); Whitby and Melia, the trapeze artists, who play with expectation, telling people at times they are siblings, and others that they are lovers; the gender-playing clowns Cash, Dosh and Dough, and others. When a sudden death among the circus players necessitates a visit to a gracekeeper, North and Callanish meet for the first time – and then spend months apart, occasionally thinking about one another, before being reunited near the book’s end. During the time they are not together, we see North coming to terms with a personal crisis which is worsening as the months pass, and her attempts to extricate herself from her impending marriage – which will entail being forced to live on land, something which Red Gold wants for her and for his son, as he feels it’s a mark of privilege. North, however, is at home on the sea, in her floating circus, and wants nothing more than to be free, along with her bear. We also see Callanish facing up to a mistake she made in her youth which has meant her self-imposed exile as a gracekeeper, a hard life of solitude and deprivation (though one she appears, at some levels, to enjoy), and her return home to try to make amends. There isn’t, however, a lot of overlap between these stories. Besides the totally coincidental fact that the two women meet early in play, and remain in one another’s minds throughout, there’s no real logic behind their relationship. Then, perhaps, this is true of any life-changing connection between people.
There are ‘themes’ in this book, as opposed to a plot. Motherhood, pregnancy, solitude, companionship, gender roles, performativity, and love all feature heavily – and some of it (particularly the parts about motherhood and pregnancy) are beautiful, heartfelt and touching. I loved North’s relationship with her bear, and in fact her whole existence as part of the floating circus, which was very well imagined and described. Other parts, such as Callanish’s back story and her entire reason for existing (as a gracekeeper, I mean, not as a person!) weren’t so compelling. The reasons behind ‘the graces’ – birds in cages which are allowed to starve to death, and whose remains are then deposited in the sea, by which time the appropriate mourning period for a dead person is seen to have come to an end – made very little sense, and in a world which is mainly water, one had to wonder where all the birds came from. Lots of the story was left unexplained at the end, and while I appreciated how North and Callanish’s stories played out, some of the other characters weren’t as well treated. I was frustrated by the fact that so many questions still hung in my mind at the book’s conclusion and by the fact that there was a bit of repetition between the storylines, and by the heavy-handed comments on gender and gender roles which cropped up from time to time. I appreciated what these comments were trying to say, but they did get a bit tedious the more often they were repeated.
This isn’t a ‘realistic’ novel, and I appreciate that. However, I still would have liked a little more logic, a little more explanation, and a little more world-building to set beside the beautiful language and the delicate characterisation. It was certainly an interesting and intelligent book, one which I enjoyed and whose style I admired, but it left me wishing for more at the end – and not in the sense of ‘I wish there was more of this story to read’. I wished there had been more story to go on in the first place. The Gracekeepers has elements of all the monumental authors to whose work it has been compared, and I can certainly see the similarities, but it is also a creature of its own, with its own flaws and shortcomings and accomplishments. I’d counsel giving it a go – it’s certainly worth reading – but it hasn’t dislodged Winterson, Le Guin, Carter or Atwood from their places in my firmament.