Amanda Curtin’s second novel tells the story of Meggie Tulloch, born in the late nineteenth century in a remote corner of Scotland which, after centuries of unchanging tradition, now finds itself in a state of flux. Meggie’s family are fishing people, however the work is becoming scarce for the menfolk of the village of Roanhaven, a situation which turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Meggie and her older sister Kitta, who escape the suffocating patriarchy of home by finding work gutting fish, first in the Shetland Isles and then further afield in England. As Meggie puts it, “I am breathing it into me, this wondrous something new… I have felt freedom in my lungs.” From this first taste of freedom, Meggie eventually ends up traveling halfway around the world, to start a new life in Fremantle, Western Australia. Along the way, she suffers physical and mental pain, heartache and loss, but she never abandons the one thing nobody can take from her – hope.
The novel is written as a sequence of memoirs from an old, ailing Meggie to her granddaughter. Although this model is not new, it never feels laboured or trite here, and Meggie’s voice, rich with the dialect of her native Scotland, is distinctive and believable. Curtin shows a deft skill for the English language, using it to perfectly capture the raw, vivid details of scenery and character. From the bitterly cold winds of Scotland to the overwhelming stench of tonnes of fish guts, Curtin describes Meggie’s world with a lightness of touch and a humour which belie the vast amount of research which must have gone into a historical novel such as this.
Meggie is a lovable, fallible, character, and it is perhaps unfortunate that we bid farewell to her about two-thirds of the way through the novel, when the narrative turns to focus on her granddaughter Laura and Laura’s daughter-in-law. These two women are dealing with their own issues centring around Laura’s son, who is in a coma in hospital, however their characters, taking centre stage so late in the book, appeared somewhat flat to me, obvious literary constructs rather than living, breathing people in my imagination. This is in contrast to the vibrant, three-dimensional Meggie, and I found it hard to warm to them or their struggles, which seemed a bit of an irrelevancy. By the time we get back to tying up the loose ends of Meggie’s tale towards the end of the novel, her story seems to have cast adrift, and the novel’s denouement comes as something of an anti-climax, which it shouldn’t, considering the immensity of what Meggie reveals.
All in all, Elemental is a finely written novel by an author who clearly knows her craft very well. I did, however, struggle at times to lose myself within its pages, instead finding myself studying the elements of the writing as though it were a fine oil painting whose brushstrokes I was admiring. Whether this is a reflection of the book itself or my own state of mind during my reading of it, I cannot say.