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Review of "Clear" by Carys Davies - A Gripping Historical Drama Set in Scotland

Review of “Clear” by Carys Davies – A Gripping Historical Drama Set in Scotland


In 1843, Reverend John Ferguson, along with many other ministers, left the Church of Scotland to create a new branch of the church. Despite his enthusiasm for this movement, he is faced with the practical concern of how he and his wife, Mary, will support themselves without his salary. This leads him to accept a voyage to a small island located halfway to Norway. With minimal supplies and a gun, he is tasked with informing the island’s only resident, a farmer named Ivar, that he must leave as part of the Highland Clearances.

Carys Davies’s third novel, Clear, opens with the following words. However, although the narrative is fueled by two significant events in Scottish history, the true captivating element of the book – language – is only introduced once John arrives on the island.

Soon after he arrives, John falls off a steep, rocky trail and gets injured. He is discovered by Ivar, a large and rugged man with straw-colored hair. Despite not knowing each other, Ivar decides not to question John’s motives as he is grateful for the company after being alone for a long time. They do not speak the same language, but as John recovers, he starts to learn and understand some of the words in Ivar’s vocabulary.

Davies borrows from Norn, a vanished language once spoken on the islands of Orkney and Shetland, whose specificities it evolved to pin down. There are many words, for instance, to describe stormy seas (gilgal, skreul, pulter, yog) and gradations of grey (emskit, dombet, broget).

Her own language is a marvel of eloquent restraint, as when a ray of sunlight falls in Ivar’s bothy “in a slowly turning, glittering column of chaff and fish scales and wisps of floating wool”. Ivar’s entire hard yet transcendent life is there.

What about John’s goal? And his gun? At times, this personal and simple three-person play appears to veer towards exaggerated drama, but it always reigns itself in. If there is a weakness, it’s in the portrayal of Mary, who is 43 and a newlywed, but seemingly defined by two peculiar events from her past: getting dentures and experiencing earthquakes in Comrie.

However, it is Mary, becoming worried on the mainland, whose brave deeds will lead Davies’s remarkable book to its surprising, subtly revolutionary conclusion – a conclusion that evokes fresh, communal beginnings in which John’s expanding collection of words resembles “a prayer, or a mild weather forecast”.

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    Carys Davies’ novel Clear is available from Granta at a price of £12.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may be applied for delivery.

Source: theguardian.com