There are some themes developing in Kirsty Logan’s work: fairy tales, the sea, and pure magic. In The Gloaming, her second novel in a catalogue that also includes two short story collections, a contemporary fairy story ebbs and flows across many maritime references, focusing on the water that gives life and takes it away. The magic comes in the form of Logan’s bewitching prose – a partly mythical setting, unique description, poetic language and a thrilling voyage.
Taking its title from the Scots term for that period of day when the sun is setting, but darkness has not fully cloaked the sky, “the gloaming” suggests the state of the souls of the characters we will meet. Set on an unnamed island (the vivid descriptions of howling wind, sweeping rain and battering gales leave us in little doubt that we’re in Scottish territory), The Gloaming is the story of siblings Mara, Islay and their dead brother Barra, or Bee, and their grieving parents, who are attempting to rebuild their broken home at the same time as rebuilding their broken hearts. The island appears to hold a curse over them, and Islay is quick to realize that the only way to avoid a fate of unhappiness and tragedy is to escape to the mainland. Mara, however, makes her escape through stories, devouring all the books she can carry from the discarded library bus she finds whilst walking in the snow:
“Mara slid the first book off the first shelf and read the first page. Everything disappeared. The island, the loch, her placid father, her frantic mother, her absent sister, her scars, her sadness. Gone. She sank into the familiar invisibility of stories.”
The discovery of the library leads her to Pearl, enchanting and mysterious, and perhaps the real mermaid of Mara’s dreams. Their friendship blossoms, and a relationship transforms from awkwardness to comfort. Their romance is beautifully drawn, illustrating a love that is gentle and kind, that may not withhold the incoming storm, but can guarantee sweetness in its parting.
The Gloaming is a love story, but love comes in many forms: romance, as described above, and raw, aching grief. Death has touched each member of Mara’s family, and they each carry guilt about others’ deaths, for example Mara herself, as a witness to Bee’s drowning and father Peter, who transmits his parental guilt to the lobsters he once cooked as a child:
“His hands that had never held anything except gently. The things he knew his hands could do now. The pain they could cause while causing him none at all.”
Even in death, these characters will turn to stone, in a reflection of the heaviness of their grief. A simply stunning description of destructive storm towards the end of the tale appears like an emotional cleansing, a way for lives so tarnished with grief to start over afresh, bringing hope in an uplifting conclusion.
The story flits from past to present, guided by chapter headings: we are in the present when we see a delicious range of Scots words, including “mauchit”, “numpty” and “pokey-hat”, and we delve back in time to learn of the romance between a boxer and a ballerina (who will later reverse their roles and become the respectfully placid and frantic parents of the tale), told almost mythically, and signposted by ballet terms – ecarté, fouetté, ramasée.
Oddly, for a book that doesn’t reach a definitive conclusion, The Gloaming retains a strong ending, answering whichever question the reader has asked. Make a wish and this delightfully magical story will grant it.
The Gloaming is out on 19th April, published by Harvill Secker.