Although no stranger to the book world, The Valley at the Centre of the World is the debut novel from Shetland-raised, Glasgow-residing Malachy Tallack. Following his non-fiction offerings of the autobiographical 60 Degrees North and last year’s The Un-Discovered Islands, Tallack’s lyrical language (he is also a songwriter and musician) means it comes as no surprise that he has turned his multi-talented hand to writing novels.
Set on Shetland, this is a modern-day island novel, breathing life into what can seem like an area of the country neglected by contemporary stories. The “Valley” of the title is the centre of the world to its residents including Sandy, who has found himself alone on his girlfriend’s parents’ croft after she leaves him for the mainland. Alice is a writer exploring deceased Maggie’s seemingly uneventful past and single father Terry faces his own lonely demons. New neighbours Jo and Ryan soon arrive, throwing a house party that will inevitably throw a spanner into their smooth-working lives. This includes the pain of unattainable romance between an already heartbroken Sandy and Jo, played with little action, but enough sizzling tension and chemistry to ignite the fire that follows: “Sandy barely heard those words, for Jo’s were still shimmering inside him, like a deep vibration that ran through his nerves and into his guts.” Oh, the feels. Along with bereft love for the living, the novel also explores grief, beautifully described by Tallack: “She had a feeling, then, that she was entirely still, and that the world was galloping around her, fixed in its trajectory and yet spinning with kind of madness, like a rollercoaster out of control, running faster and faster on its rails, threatening to come loose at any moment and plunge into the empty air.” Here is a perfect balance of emotion; convincing and believable, and never manipulative in over-sentimentality.
The beauty of Tallack’s prose is the highlight of this reading experience, with descriptions of the harsh island climate so vivid you can feel the wind on your cheeks as you read: “Already the breeze was much more than a breeze. It had come on almost unnoticed, a gust that failed to subside, but now it whipped up the valley, snapping at his cheeks and in the corners of his eyes. Salt hammered his lips.”
Tallack brings authenticity to his story by ensuring his characters speak in their local dialect. Having friends who are Shetlanders, I could certainly hear their voices and accent as I read, but had I been unfamiliar with the vernacular I fear this would have been a stumbling block, but that is a criticism of myself as a reader, and not of the author’s style. With island voices few and far between in contemporary novels, it is vital they are heard and shared, and not diminished.
The theme of home is prevalent in all of Tallack’s writing and The Valley at the Centre of the World is no different; characters reflect on their sense of identity and belonging throughout the story, and the simplicity of Tallack’s final line brings that message beautifully home to the reader. A true delight from one of Scotland’s most promising new voices.
The Valley at the Centre of the World is published by Canongate on 3rd May 2018.