It’s a wonderful thing when a book so fires the imagination that it becomes more real than the world around you, when the mind is totally absorbed, the page dissolves, and you begin to exist differently. It was mainly a thing of long childhood summers, when I was a musketeer, then a Viking, a wizard, a centaur – once even a quickfooted warrior mouse. Sadly it stopped in adolescence, when these things weren’t done. Apart from one time at university where I became a sperm whale for a while, the pleasure of being transformed and transported has become a rare one.
Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I picked up Neil M. Gunn’s The Silver Darlings (1941) and became a nineteenth-century herring fisherman on the east coast of Scotland. It might seem odd to be so taken with a book about Scottish herring fishing in the 1820s, but Gunn’s prose is simple and captivating, the details precise and unassuming. The novel is an adventure story, a love story, a coming-of-age story – a story about the sea and the land, and the terror and struggle that go with making a living from them.
I bought my copy in a second-hand bookshop on Byres Road, on a smudgy day in late November when I’d just moved to Glasgow from London. I read it as my first Scottish winter closed in, and it made me long not for the milder south but for the rugged north – I wanted to go to sea immediately, even as the snow fell, if only for the adventure, for the ancient thrill of boat and sail, and the heft of the elements.
The Silver Darlings is one of those rare novels with a first chapter that would work perfectly as a short story. The atmosphere is instantly compelling, the physical and emotional detail sharp: Gunn is a master at showing how actions are just flickers across the surface of a character’s psyche, markers of something much bigger that exists in the emotional depths. The book opens with Tormad and Catrine, newly married, deeply in love. Tormad i
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