Heligoland was shortlisted for the Orange Prize this year. It is Shena Mackay's ninth novel, and the first of hers I have ever read. Shame on me, for depriving myself of some radiant story telling. I am now rushing out for her oeuvre, which includes four collections of short fiction. Somewhat prize-guided, I'll start with "The Orchard on Fire" which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996.
But let us return to Heligoland, a place that Mackay's heroine, Rowena Snow, longs to find. Helgoland—which became Heligoland in an opera by Bruckner—is an island in the North Sea which has now dropped off Radio Four's "Shipping Forecast," but which used to have regular shipping mention in Aunt Mysie's kitchen. Rowena's Aunt Mysie cum adopted mother has long passed away too. Rowena was eight. Now a woman of certain—or uncertain—age, she continues to mourn Mysie's death and its results; the most tangible one being that she was sent away from Scotland to boarding school in South London.
These days Rowena's consciousness, which is where we spend most of the book, is always reaching for what she has left behind so that Heligoland remains "both an island over unnavigable seas and a fairground roundabout" [p. 7].
The novel describes Rowena's search for solace and reunion, and the people around her are searching too.
Mackay's sense of place is impressive and the setting unique, not to say tremendous. In terms of the "present," we have moved from Scotland, to London, mainly South London, which I have known for twenty years and completely recognise in Mackay's evocation of grimy look, mood and mores:
But Mackay and South London also offer ethereal settings:
I am almost in love with Herne Hill again.
Most of the novel is spent in and around the Nautilus, somewhere near Crystal Palace. The Nautilus is not a ship but a floating architectural masterpiece in the shape of a huge spiral shell, with its own anchor, beach and breakwater. I have never actually seen the Nautilus but now I expect to. This novel convinces me of its existence. I believe too, as Mackay tells me, that it used to be home to a thriving cosmopolitan and artistic community, though time has taken its toll and it is now a shell in more ways than one. Only two of the original inhabitants are resident, temporarily sheltering Mr. Fix-it or Gus, an "antique dealer" who is separated from his wife. Rowena, recently employed as housekeeper, feels temporary too. She still has to find her feet, but how can she put down roots on what floats?
In Rowena Snow, Mackay has created a character bursting with inner life and contradictions. Rowena is a mixed race orphan, half Scottish made English, presumed half Burmese but in fact half Indian, a carer, caterer and would-be poet filled with other poets' lines. She has a sharp sense of humour—and sometimes a sharp tongue—observing other Nautilus characters, all equally alive, gloriously eccentric, yet resonant and all out of reach of what they most love. Moving effortlessly and intimately between points of view, Mackay evokes the lives they miss and their perceptions of current surroundings. They are all flawed but fundamentally empathic, striving to mean well and make the most of what is left to them:
This is a short novel with no room for waste and this snapshot of Celeste tells us so much. The old trooper, widow of the Nautilus architect, is vividly defined by her physicality, her action and the car, which plays a quiet but vital part in the plot. Celeste Zylberstein is also an appropriate embodiment of her name. Mackay and Rowena Snow are interested by names and Celeste's evokes magical elements and the long history of a frequently isolated race. Less charismatic characters anglicise or mispronounce Zylberstein, which changes the identity, or even rubs it out.
Racism is a theme in this novel and one of the deep reasons that Rowena feels isolated, distrusted or at best ignored. The responses of Rowena's house mates to her report of a thrown egg are well observed—particularly that of the poet Francis Compton, who tries to swamp her experience by talking about his.
Heligoland is vividly written and the pace is varied and generally appropriate to the action. It is full of literary allusions, and although Rowena is desperate to display and improve her knowledge, I felt, on a couple of occasions, that the author was using the opportunity to educate and improve me. Perhaps this is no bad thing, or worth bearing for the joy of this story.
For a short
novel, which is a bit of a page turner, it feels longer than it
is on paper. I put this down to its density. A lot happens—in
the characters' minds and hearts as well as in the world around
them. Events are kept modest and day-to-day but the action rises
dramatically through plot and subplots, and curiosity is maintained
throughout. For me closure came a little fast and felt slightly
too resolved. Working back I could and maybe should have seen
it coming. Still, first time through, I was as surprised as Rowena.