6th March, 2019

Review: The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack (Canongate Books)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is prose at its best. Tallack draws a simultaneously vivid and lyrical image of a small valley on the rugged west coast of Shetland and its few inhabitants. The Valley at the Centre of the World is a story of family and old ways of living, of love and grief, and of the intrusion of modernity into old traditions. 

"The thing he felt ending was not just one person, or even one generation; it was older, and had, in truth, been ending for a long time ... It was a chain of stories clinging to stories, of love clinging to love. It was an inheritance he did not know how to pass on."

In Tallack's debut novel we meet David, a man who has lived in the valley all his life, and his wife Mary who is still struggling with the fact that both their daughters have moved away. Sandy is a newcomer to the valley but already a crofter. Alice has fled here after the death of her husband and is now trying to fight her demons by compiling a history of the region. 

The setting is marvellous: a place of harsh elements, sheep, crofts and old customs. Shetland is a place of tradition but as times are changing, David is worried that no young people will take over when he - the last person left who was actually born in the valley - is gone. Who will take care of this place and who will remember and pass on the age-old stories? Tallack's novel brilliantly tackles these questions and, in the process, draws us into this wonderful  place of sun and wind and the feeling of salt on your skin. It's a story about "community and isolation, about what is passed down, and what is lost between the cracks." 

The title itself is already cleverly chosen. The contrast of the valley quite obviously not being the centre of everything when we look at the big picture while actually being exactly that for its few inhabitants already shows perfectly what the novel is about: contrasts, change, perceptions. The valley in many ways represents a microcosm of the outside world, where increasing forces of change are ubiquitous. Just like Heaney appropriated layers of history in his poetry, Tallack also negotiates the past through questions of ancestral inheritance, creating a strong feeling of nostalgia. The inhabitants' desire to hold on as strongly as possible to the old ways is heart-breaking.

A definite strong point of this book is indeed its characters. Not all of them have honest motifs for what they are doing or are conflicted in other ways: from Ryan who is only looking for an opportunity to increase the balance in his bank account, via Terry, an alcoholic who is destroying his family and his own life, to Sandy who struggles with his feelings for another man's partner. Tallack, however, manages to well-balance his cast of characters and it is very easy for readers to become attached to quite a few of them. This is in fact one thing that really surprised me about The Valley at the Centre of the World:  not really much actually happens and still you find yourself rushing through the book because you want to know how things will pan out for everyone. In a way, the story was very much like a Virginia Woolf novel - it was more about underlying structures of tradition and the inner workings of the mind than any fast-paced action. 

I'm substracting half a star from my rating because some story threads seemed to just trundle along without being really resolved in the end. Apart from that, the book gets two thumbs up!!

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

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