As I’ve been such a sporadic member of the blogging community this past year, it was by happy accident that I learned of the review-a-long organised by FictionFan and friends for The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn. An even more fortunate accident from my perspective meant that Rose’s copy of the book was lost at sea for a while which delayed the original date for posting reviews and enabled me to have almost finished reading when the new date was announced. That date was Monday last, and here – better late than never – is my contribution.
I’d never heard of this book or the author and I am so pleased to have made the acquaintance of both. I’m sure I’ll be reading more by Neil Gunn. For now, suffice to say of him that he was a prolific Scottish author, regarded as a leading light in the Scottish renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. An Amazon reviewer argues that he would undoubtedly have won a Booker prize had it been available in his era. I would not disagree.
At almost 600 pages, this is a lengthy book and it’s slow-moving. In her review, Fiction Fan remarks that whilst seeing its merits, she found the book too slow-moving for her taste and lacking in plot. Both are valid points. It’s certainly more difficult to hold the reader’s interest if you choose to author a very long book with very little plot. It’s a testament to Gunn’s skills that he held FF’s interest regardless. He certainly held mine. And Rose’s. Links to their reviews are below and both are worth reading.
If I had to characterise this book it would be as a coming-of-age tale but it will touch different people in different ways, such is its breadth and scope. It put me in mind of a Dickens novel. The novel’s length and the fact that I was coming to the end of a Dickens saga (Dombey in case you’re interested) might be significant here, but there are other parallels. The simplicity of the plot presented against a wide social background; characters which felt so real that I’m convinced I must have met them somewhere; superb dialogue and a striking sense of place all put me in mind of the early Dickens books. Gunn is far more subtle though. He has some points to get across but chooses not to wield the sledgehammer which Dickens occasionally uses to bludgeon his reader.
Equally, Gunn does not caricature in the manner of Dickens but he writes in a style which would suit a Dickens novel. I had to remind myself that this was written in 1941; it has the feel of a book written much earlier. And that’s fitting. The story takes place in the far north of Scotland during the fishing boom which occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the aftermath of the Scottish Clearances. The archaic style is not difficult to read. It balances Gunn’s decision to write in standard English, largely avoiding dialect and yet never letting the reader forget that we are in the far north of Scotland. This accessibility has likely contributed to this being one of his most popular novels.
During the Clearances, which are but lightly referenced here, crofting families, who had eked out a living from the land for generations, were forced either to emigrate or move to the coast where they turned to the seas for their livelihood. Gunn’s tale begins when Tormad leaves his young, pregnant wife to try his hand on the sea. The opening chapter illustrates the risks and dangers of the sea for those born into a different way of life and the fear which runs alongside those risks. Catrine is terrified of her young husband’s determination to go to sea and pleads with him not to go. Tormad knows the risks but he also knows he must provide for her and his child.
He soothed her as best he could, and the Gaelic tongue helped him for it is full of the tenderest endearments. “You see,” he wispered in her hair, “it’s all for you – and himself. There’s nothing here, Catrine; nothing in this barren strip of land for us. And the men who are going to sea are making the money. Could I do less than them when I have the strength in me not to see them in my way?”chapter 1: The Derelict Boat
I assumed Catrine’s fear was of the sea itself; I was not prepared for Tormad and his crew to be taken by a British ship: pressganged into the navy for up to twenty years. Other boats, manned by more experienced fishermen recognised the vessel and made for home. Tormad and his crew were experiencing the delight of their first sizable catch of herrings – the ‘silver darlings’ which give the novel its title – and failed to take action until it was too late. Catrine is left in limbo, neither a wife nor a widow. She leaves their croft and her family and the unhappy memories and begins a new life with an old friend, Kirsty, where her son, Finn, is born and grows to manhood.
I found so much to enjoy in this book. Every character felt real, with strengths and weaknesses, quirks and fears, humour and temper. Gunn writes with a light touch but conveys motivation with depth and sensitivity and explores the full gamut of human emotion. Characters of all temperament, of either gender, of all ages are equally portrayed with life and vigour, compassion and warmth. (Not something which can be said for Dickens.) Finn as a child is as convincing as Finn approaching manhood. The fears and the strength of Catrine, his mother, are written with great tenderness. Roddie is the third main character: skipper of his own boat, a consummate fisherman revered by the community and adored by young Finn but not without demons and weaknesses of his own. The changing relationships between these three uncoil at a leisurely pace as the years pass and circumstances change.
Minor characters receive equal attention. There seemed to be no shadowy characters in the background as extra padding. However small their role, each had his or her personality and distinctive quality. Conversations are frequently written verbatim and for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed this. The naturalness, the camaraderie and especially the humour had me laughing out loud. I was less taken with the sermons and the economic chat but it was a crucial aspect of the story and certainly merited its place.
Gunn seems as strong when presenting the picture of a community as he is when depicting individuals, using his minor characters to flesh out prevailing views and other significant events, again with a light touch but with vivid detail. My interest was caught by the personal stories but there is plenty in this book for those more interested in the broader social and economic situation.
Gunn creates landscapes with a painterly eye. Deft and detailed brush strokes create a bucolic background to Finn’s childhood. Poverty is neither forgotten nor hidden but is balanced by the resilience of the people and the harsh beauty of their surroundings.
This is indeed a leisurely, meandering book. (We are back to Dickens perhaps.) There is so much that delighted me that I was happy to wander here and there and simply enjoy the journey. But it is the set pieces which stand out for me and set this book apart. There are several of them. The majority, as is fitting, involve the sea. At least one is quite different, when cholera reaches the area. In each of these episodes, Gunn does not step back from his use of rich detail. Instead, the pace quickens, the tension rises and a slow burn becomes, for a while, a roiling page turner. I’m reminded of the sea itself. Calm and gentle one minute, lulling me into slumber; desperate and deadly the next. I read with my heart in my mouth. Perhaps it’s indicative of how closely I felt I’d come to know these characters that their moments of peril felt so intense, so acute. Or perhaps it’s just indicative of the quality of Neil Gunn’s writing.
He had heard of a Gaelic poem that described all the different kinds of waves there are. But no poem could describe them all. Take this one coming at them now – now! -its water on the crest turned into little waters, running, herding together, before – up-up! over its shoulder and down into the long flecked hollow like a living skin.chapter XV: Storm and Precipice
I can see that this book will not be for everyone. For me (and for Rose) it was a joy and I am very glad to have read it. My sister lives close to Helmsdale, one of the locations of the book; her youngest son’s name is regularly abbreviated to Finn and he is the same age now as Finn was as the story closes. I’m sure these connections added to my pleasure in the book and have demanded that I buy her a copy for her forthcoming birthday though I feel certain she must already have it.
As I reached the closing chapters I really didn’t want the book to end. It will be one of my reading highlights of this year. My thanks to Fiction Fan and Rose (and to Alyson and Christine who are also a part of the review-a-long but who’s comments I’ve not yet read) for the introduction to a book and an author I might never have encountered.
Fiction Fan’s review
Rose Reads Novels review