Some writers are story tellers, others are novelists, Catherine Czerkawska is both. She’s also a poet, a playwright and, for the purposes of disclosure, a friend. But, as I mentioned in a previous review of a book written by another friend, when it comes to reviews, my opinions aren’t coloured by anything personal. My reactions are those of a reader, not a friend.
So, in a way, it would help if this hadn’t been such a pleasure to read, but it was. It also happens to be set in a part of the world I love. I don’t know the actual location (the island of Garve off Scotland’s north-west coast), but I know the region and have my own favourite places there. I only mention this because, in many ways, the book is about the setting as much as about its characters. As one of them says ‘The border between life and death, between the natural and the supernatural, is very thin here’, and the interweaving of two narratives, past and present, is enriched precisely by this constant awareness of the coexistence of apparent dualities which are separate but interdependent. Along with those identified by the character, there are also myths and reality, harshness and fragility, town and wilderness, Gaelic and Scotch, civilisation and… well, another form of civilisation, equally advanced but with different values. This is a bleak, windswept place surrounded by wild seas and fierce currents and yet, as another character says ‘The whole island is a flower garden’.
The stories offer yet another duality – ‘then’ and ‘now’ – one being set in the seventeenth century, the other in the present. They feature two women: Henrietta was brought here by her kidnapper, Alys is returning to a place she remembers fondly from her visits as a child. They have both come from the mainland, where each has left a son, and are gradually drawn into the magic of the island. And each is attracted to one of its men: Henrietta to Manus, the island’s chief (and, incidentally, her kidnapper), and Alys to Donal. The two love stories are tender but seem impossible. The author develops the fine nuances and shifts of each with a simplicity which looks, but isn’t, artless. ‘I would not wish to leave this place,’ says Henrietta. ‘I would not wish to leave you… I think it would break my heart to leave you.’ And Donal, comes to Alys’ room just to say, ‘Oh, my love, I could not go to sleep without a sight of your face’.
But each romance has deep lows as well as passionate highs and rather than being ‘just’ love stories, their essence derives from and is part of the fabric of the island’s mystery. As the extracts above illustrate, the rhythms, even those of the modern characters, are subtly different from our own; they belong to this other world, one which Alys begins to understand when she ‘has a sudden vision of the island, like a polished pebble: the layers one on top of the other, past, present, future, all part of some mysterious whole, or like a small planet, spinning through time. Maybe that’s the secret, she thinks. Everything matters and nothing is lost.’
These thoughts are triggered by her fascination with the cabinet of the title. It was originally made by Manus’ first wife and passed on to Henrietta. It contains keepsakes, pebbles, shells and swansdown and has the same fascination for Alys as it did for Henrietta. It, and the objects it contains, bring the two stories together. It has been on the island for some three centuries, quietly symbolising its timelessness and magical, mysterious values.
But I’m not doing the book justice. I’m making it sound like some abstract poetical musing and it’s so much more. It’s an artfully constructed example of what the novel form can do, with its two narratives throwing teasing echoes at one another as they’re pursued in alternating chapters. A desire for carrot cake in today’s Edinburgh follows hard on the baking of special Struan cakes to celebrate the island’s feast of St Micheil back in the time of Henrietta; the two stories reach their respective climaxes at the same time; the moment the past/present chapters stop alternating, the two threads are brought together by incidents involving the cabinet. And a question posed in 21st century Edinburgh is answered by a scene set in the early 1700s. Manus describes Henrietta as ‘the brown swan, the mute swan and the loveliest of swans on the lake… My bride from the sea, my treasure of treasures.’ And when Donal and Alys are together, they hear ‘the eerie sound of swans, a pair of them flying in over the bay.
‘I heard that noise in my dreams,’ she says. And he replies, ‘‘They always come back. Year after year’.
But I mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s also an intriguing story, with the mystery of Henrietta’s kidnap to be explained and the obstacles in the way of the two loves to be overcome. Then there’s the story that Manus’ bride came from the sea’ and the conundrum of how a young widower, after a marriage of only a couple of years, could beget four sons and a daughter.
There’s room for humour, too, in many of the exchanges. When Donal looks up and says the weather will be fine, Alys is impressed and asks whether he really can tell that by looking at the sky. ‘No,’ he says. ‘But I listened to the shipping forecast this morning.’ And Alys’ opinion of her ex-husband’s newly pregnant wife is clear from her observation that ‘she will keep the placenta in her freezer, cook it like liver with a few chopped onions and eat some of it to prevent postnatal depression’.
Sitting at the centre of it all is the curiosity cabinet, with its embroidered panels on a wooden base. The panels carry Biblical scenes of Ruth, a deliberate recollection of a woman whose actions and choices, like those of Henrietta and Alys, transcend cultural boundaries. Alys herself, when she recognises the story of Ruth, remembers her words ‘Whither thou goest I will go… Thy people shall be my people’. But as well as this direct reference to the two narratives, the cabinet also contains the ordinary, mundane objects I’ve already mentioned, all linked with past lives and loves. It encapsulates not only the treasures of the island and its people but also the explanation and meaning of the novel itself. When the story ends with the seemingly trivial event of a little boy running up with something that he’s found on the seashore, it’s a very gentle reminder of the timelessness of everything, the wholeness of communities, the importance of trivial objects which carry meanings well beyond their own value. No wonder the keepers of the cabinet, when offered ‘thousands’ for it in the past, refused. Its value goes well beyond the world of finance.
The Curiosity Cabinet is a beautiful book.
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