I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and presume that Amanda Curtin did not set out to deliberately cause me the messy embarrassment of unexpected tears in public. I’ll concede that she wasn’t to know that the tale of Margaret Duthie Tulloch – or Fish Meggie as I will always think of her – would have me sobbing uncontrollably and mumbling about allergies. Though if I’m to be scrupulously honest it wasn’t the story itself – achingly sad though much of it is – that made me cry but rather Meggie’s acute observations about her world and the exquisite prose Curtin has used to express her character’s thoughts. Laced with terms from several local Scottish dialects the book is a sheer delight for lovers of the written word.
Meggie was born of sea people in a tiny village in far north-eastern Scotland in 1891. As if the life of unrelenting poverty and hard work expected by all who were born in that place at that time wasn’t grim enough, Meggie suffered the additional curses of being female and having red hair, which according to local beliefs made her a danger to any fisherman, especially if she crossed his path just before he went to sea. Eighty-odd years after her birth Fish Meggie is ill and decides to write her story – or some of it anyway – as a present for her granddaughter and so begins to fill three notebooks with her memories.
In ELEMENTAL there’s not a trace of the twee romanticisation of poverty and hardship that infuses a lot of the historical fiction I’ve read. Meggie’s life begins with a different kind of childhood from the one we think of as normal today
Loved you were, aye, in the way of those days, a careless kind of love that took all manner of things for granted. But if you had a thought in your head there was none who would stoop to hear it and none to say you mattered the peeriest thing. And if you were a girl, you’d get used to that, aye. You would forever be the last, in a world where the words of men and the ways of shoalfish and the direction of the wind were what mattered.
I canna imagine a child of today taking it into their head that they were not the centre of all else. That the world was not waiting for the next thing they might say (p13-14)
Allowed to go to school only because the law demands it Meggie does develop a devotion to books which lasts her whole life and she also knows the love of her mother, her older sister Kitta and, for a time anyway, that of a stray dog who adopts her as his very own. But with her father and brothers gone fishing for much of the year the only man she has much contact with is her grandfather – a hate-fuelled, ignorant man who makes young Meggie’s life far harsher than it needs to be. As if living amongst a people “steeped in the ins and outs of restraint” and being expected to perform endless hours of back-breaking chores in freezing temperatures weren’t bad enough.
Sorrows do follow Meggie as she breaks away from her dreaded village for a life on her own which eventually takes her across the world to Western Australia but there is laughter and family and a love story too that combine to save ELEMENTAL from falling into the wallowing, misery-lit category of fiction.
As is usually the way though it was the things to which I could personally relate which sent me scuttling for tissues in the aforementioned sobbing incident. I was not quite two years old when the last of my grandparents died so I have no personal experience of any of the grandparental relationships Meggie describes but as both of my parents now have a form of dementia her observation about the differences between memory (a transient, unreliable kind of fact list) and memories (individual versions of the truth which stay with us forever) knocked me for six. As did her notion of her more elusive parent “A father was little more than an idea to me…a man-shaped shadow by the fire”. I stopped reading in public after that.
In case you’re in any doubt I adored ELEMENTAL. Even though it made me cry. In public. Even though I felt physically bereft at the early loss of the narrative voice of Meggie when the book abruptly switched to the voice of her granddaughter and her daughter-in-law for its conclusion.
It is a beautiful book.
Thanks to Angela Savage for her heartfelt recommendation of this book that might not otherwise have crossed my radar.
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Publisher University of Western Australia Publishing 
Length 436 pages
Book Series standalone
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