Monday, 1 June 2015

Book Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The world as we know it is flooded, drowned, and very very soggy. In Kirsty Logan’s debut novel, she gives us a future (presumably) where dry land is in short supply and those who live on it (landlockers) have the upper hand in social status.

That’s unless you’re a dampling, with the sea in your veins, fish stew on your breath, and webbed toes. The Gracekeepers partly follows the Circus Excalibur, a small crew of performers who float nomadically across the ocean, exchanging performances for food. They’re all face paint, hair dye and glitter, a gender-bending troupe constantly reinventing itself in each performance.

We learn about a number of characters in this fanciful world. There’s North, the young woman who dances with a bear in a dangerous pirouette of death and rebirth for the punters. Red Gold (Jarrow), the Circus Ringmaster and owner who is blind to some harsh truths. Avalon, his bitchy wife who wants to rise through the social ranks. And Callanish, a mysterious gracekeeper who spends her time administering rites for the dead by starving small birds in cages over the sea.

Logan’s prose is tightly controlled, dreamy and magical. To call this a dystopia doesn’t seem right somehow, instead The Gracekeepers brings to mind the magic realism of Angela Carter. But there’s not really much more beyond the descriptive language. The characters seem underwritten, with a multitude of gaps left unexplored (I’m still not really sure what happened between Callanish and her mother). Perhaps this is deliberate and I’m not saying we have to know everything, but the effect kept me oddly distanced and unengaged with the story. Threads are woven loosely and then abandoned. This effect is exacerbated by the structure; early on alternating third person chapters from North and Callanish’s perspective are established, before suddenly a hotchpotch of other views butt in, often for only one chapter. It’s disorientating.

There are some arresting passages of prose however. A scene where North dives deep into the ocean and finds a drowned city, for example, or her relationship with the bear. Logan seems indebted to Shakespearean themes, motifs and theatre too—her clowns are surely incarnations of the Shakespearean fool, inciting rebellion against the upper classes while simultaneously acting as scapegoat for society’s ills. The acrobats are male/female, brother/sister, husband/wife, and they seem to swap between all these roles, bringing to mind the gender play of Twelfth Night. The term ‘damplings’ perhaps suggests the ‘groundings’ of early modern theatre audiences. And of course, you can’t help but think Exit, pursued by a bear… 

But these motifs all seem a little bit forced and a little bit too self-aware, while the clowns’ potential is never fully realised. They just kind of slope around in the background, leaving glitter and eyeliner over the bedsheets. The ending, when it comes, feels rushed and certainly not as apocalyptic as it promised to be, although Logan does a good job of creating pathos (you’ll guess what happens).

The Gracekeepers is an odd little fairytale which is definitely worth reading, but just don’t expect a huge amount of depth. Like any good circus performance, it’s all smoke and mirrors.