Greenvoe is George Mackay Brown's first novel, published in 1972. He was not a young man by then, nearly 51 years old, with long years of study, illness and seclusion on his beloved Orkney already behind him. He had published some poetry and some short stories, but was only just beginning to build a quiet acclaim amongst other writers. It would be another 20 years until he wrote Vinland (which I read and loved last year); he would be over 70 when he was finally nominated for the Booker Prize in 1994. I don't know how this first novel was initially received (I have two biographies of Brown to read and I'm sure they will tell me) but I imagine it was with some puzzlement and some admiration. His story of a small island community on the Orkney island of Hellya - just a handful of farms, a hotel, a shop and a ferry - is meandering, plotless, oblique, poetic, uneven but, in parts, absolutely glorious. It confirms for me that I have to track down and read every drop of Mackay Brown I can; I've already collected five out of his seven novels.
My edition of Greenvoe is a 2004 reprint from Polygon, an independent Scottish press, whom we have to thank for most of the GMB currently in print. They clearly struggled to blurb the book, as they make a big deal on the back cover of the coming to Hellya of 'a sinister military project, Operation Black Star' which 'requires the island for unspecified purposes and threatens the islanders' way of life.' In fact Operation Black Star doesn't arrive on Hellya until page 207 of 242, and prior to that it is little more than a faint, barely detected hint. Instead the subjects of the book are Hellya's inhabitants before Black Star, the people it will make homeless. GMB introduces us to an islands' worth of unexpected characters: Timothy Folster, who lives in a burnt out shack and drinks methylated spirit; Alice Voar, an unmarried mother of seven children, all with different fathers; Joseph Evie, shopkeeper and Councillor and his embittered wife; bible Christian Samuel Whaness and his wife Rachel; radical, Socialist Skarf, who is writing a history of the island; and the drunk priest living with his guilt-ridden mother. There are too many to enumerate them all. The book is extraordinarily rich in character for its short length.
The island, the community of characters, the rhythm of daily life is the plot of Greenvoe. Hellya is an almost timeless place, difficult to situate. It could the 1920s or 1960s. The incidents that interupt or galvinise its population are minor ones. Johnny, an Indian travelling salesman, arrives on the island with his case full of scarves and coats and trinkets, bringing succour to some and sourness to others. His lust for Alice Voar, and his futile attempt to resist her earth-mother charm, is as far as GMB reaches for a romantic subplot. That and the unrelieved sexual tension between ferryman Ivan Westray and schoolteacher Margaret Inveray; which Ivan later takes out on Inga Fortin-Bell, the laird's naive teenage grandaughter. Elsewhere an old man dies, and a young man is initiated into the island's agricultural mysticism. One fisherman steals lobster from another, who almost dies seeking revenge. These little things happen, and at the same time the tides go in and out, sea fogs come down and lift, and lots of whisky (illegally bottled by the hotelier) is drunk by all. In the background is Skarf's story of Hellya's deep past, from its prehistoric people to the present day.
It is an immersive reading experience, populated with diversity, and with such great sensitivity. You could call it 'gentle', because of the pace and the often patent nostalgia for an island life now past, but that would be the wrong way to describe it. Greenvoe paints a picture of Hellya - not all nostalgic; sometimes harsh and cruel, but always honest and truthful - only to utterly destroy it in the last pages with Operation Black Star. The characters we have understood in context are ripped from their homes and even the geography of the place is changed. It is violent and awful:
The cone of Korfsea was shorn off. The loch of Warston was drained; red-throated divers and eiders and swans had to seek other waters. Hellya was probed and tunnelled to the roots. ... All the week the Skua ferried more and more workers across; within a week they outnumbered the island people. Their vivid faces were everywhere in the island. Their feet beat on the roads with a different rhythm.
GMB uses the word 'rhythm' often, and his stories are full of beats and musics - feet on the roads, knocks at doors, the sea on the shore, the wind through the fields. You could read Greenvoe as an elegy to natural rhythms - of life, of nature - as opposed to the unnatural and destructive rhythms of Operation Black Star, of the modern, militarised world. This would be quite a basic reading of a subtle novelist, but valid I think.
Subtlety is what I've grown to love most about GMB, even in just the two novels and few short stories of his I have read so far. I feel as though the arc of his books are less important, less well tended to, than the minutiae, the detail. He is so good at observing behaviours. Looking back over the sections of the book that I marked to come back to, three of them are just scenes of children playing. I love the way he captures the ritual, the unknowable thoughts of a child's mind, dashing from one idea or activity to another. I'll leave you with little Shirley Voar, playing by herself on the dirt road, and an exhortation to read GMB as soon as possible.
They are off like a whirl and undulation of starlings, all but one little girl with Alice-eyes. This one hops a few steps after the others. She stands and watches them. She is not interested in races. She whirls about. She meanders to the ditch, plucks a buttercup. She sniffs it, throws it from her. She circles across to the other side of the road, jumps once up and down, inserts herself half into the fence, bleats high and plaintive to a munching sheep on the other side, unfurls a finger in her mouth, and tilts her head, examining nothing, quizzing the huge luminous pearl of the sky. There she stands. She has gathered all her movements into a stillness and a silence.