21 December, 2014

The Gathering Night, by Margaret Elphinstone. Book review

Canongate, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84767-288-9. 368 pages.

The Gathering Night is set in Mesolithic Scotland around 6150 BC, when an underwater landslide off the coast of Norway (the Storegga Slide) caused a tsunami that devastated the east and north-east coast of Scotland. All the characters are fictional.

The Auk people live on the coasts and islands of what is now the western Highlands of Scotland, grouped into individual families who come together once a year at the Gathering in late summer. One autumn, Bakar, a young hunter, disappears without trace from his family’s winter camp. At around the same time, four young men of the Lynx people arrive on the west coast, having crossed all the way from the east coast where their lands have been destroyed by a catastrophic tsunami. Three of the Lynx men stay among the Heron people, south of Auk lands, and one, Kemen, comes on alone to the Auk people. At the Gathering, Kemen is accepted into the Auk people, marries an Auk girl who has just survived a murderous attack by an unknown assailant, and is accepted into the family of the missing Bakar. These events cause some resentment among other Auk families, notably the family of the assaulted girl and the Auk hunter who hoped to marry her himself. When Kemen’s brother Basajaun also turns up in Auk lands, having left the lands of the Heron people, conflict flares. Have these Lynx refugees brought ill fortune to the Auk people? And what are the Auk people going to do about it?

The Gathering Night is an unusual novel. It doesn’t really have a plot as such, although the mystery around Bakar’s disappearance and its eventual resolution provides a loose structure. The narrative is structured as a group of people taking it in turns to speak around a campfire, telling of events that happened several years previously. There is not really a central character, either. This is an egalitarian society in which people think of themselves primarily as part of a group or groups – a family, the Auk people – and only secondarily as individuals. The only one who seems to have something resembling a modern sense of self is Kemen’s brother Basajaun, and when he says to Kemen after the destruction of their lands and tribe, “A man is his own self”, Kemen is fearful and disturbed by this strange attitude. So characterisation in the conventional sense is limited, and the voices of the various narrators all sound very similar. I could sometimes tell who was speaking if I forgot to look at the tag line because of the different roles they play – shaman, hunter, child, young woman, wife, mother – but rarely from the style of speaking, because their society does not work that way.

What makes The Gathering Night stand out is its wonderful portrayal of daily life as it might have been for the Mesolithic people of western Scotland about 8,000 years ago. This period of pre-history, before the coming of agriculture, is so far removed from the modern world that it’s difficult to even begin to imagine what it might have been like to live at that time. Almost nothing is known, as there are no written records and very few physical remains. Archaeology has identified the sites of some camping places, food debris such as shell middens and nutshells provide some information about the diet, and stone tools say something about the technology available. But the cultural, social, artistic and spiritual life of the people who used the tools and ate the food is completely unknown. The author has imagined how it might have been by drawing on the traditions of more recent nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies such as the Sami, Inuit and Native Americans. Language is also completely unknown, so the author chose Basque names for the characters, as Basque is thought to be the only pre-agricultural language surviving in western Europe.

From these sources, together with the author’s own forays into hunter-gatherer skills (such as building a coracle), The Gathering Night creates a Mesolithic society complete with details of the hunting and gathering skills that might have been used, the wide range of foods utilised at different seasons, the reckoning of time and location, travel among the islands and lochs of the west coast, social organisation, conventions and values, spiritual beliefs, rituals, art and storytelling. We cannot possibly know what Mesolithic Scotland was really like (short of time travel), but The Gathering Night imagines it as a richly complex culture and brings it to vivid life on the page.

The Author’s Afterword outlines some of the sources underlying the novel, and hints at some of the places involved. There is no map because, as she says, “my characters imagined their land in other ways.” However, the landscape descriptions are so detailed and appealing that I couldn’t help trying to figure out how they might fit into the modern geography, and after an enjoyable hour or two with maps of Ardnamurchan, the Isle of Mull, Ardgour and Argyll, I reckon I can make a stab at identifying ‘Mother Mountain Island’ and ‘Gathering Loch’ at least, and maybe some of the other locations.

Beautiful portrayal of Mesolithic Scotland as it might have been about 8,000 years ago.


Rick said...

An interesting twist on the 'auld Scotland' theme in hist-fic! So auld in this case that I imagine there are not even the most indirect links to any familiar human context. (Wouldn't even the megalithic era be some 3000+ years later?)

The use of Basque names is a sensible way to handle things, but it also got me thinking about personal names in general. We are accustomed to given names that have no meaning as words because so many of ours come from ancient Hebrew or other remote sources. Compare to the tribal names, such as Auk and Lynx. Personal names on that same basis would sound odder to our ears than Basque names do!

Carla said...

Yes, it's way before megaliths - the people in The Gathering Night don't build any structures more substantial than simple shelters. The geography, landscape and wildlife have some links with contemporary context (hence I reckon I can identify some of the places), but that's about it. The setting pre-dates all the stone circles, Maes Howe, brochs, let alone the castles. That's one of the things I liked about it, that it imagines a world that's so far distant from ours.

Even personal names that do have meaning seem to be handled in a special way - if I meet a girl called Rose I don't immediately think of the flower. That may be because, as you say, most names don't have a meaning as words and so I'm used to processing a name as a group of sounds and don't look for it to have a meaning in the same way as an ordinary word.
I think if the book had used personal names on the same basis as the tribal names, based on things like animals and natural phenomena, it would have ended up with names that could sound vaguely Native American (Running Bear, White Swan, Swift Wolf), which would have immediately placed the reader in the wrong continent and could have been confusing. I think I've seen a reviewer on Amazon or Goodreads or somewhere who said they were most of the way through before they realised it wasn't set in the Pacific North-West! That might be appropriate for the hunter-gatherer culture being portrayed, but not for the location. Basque at least keeps it European. If Basque really is a lone survivor of whatever languages were spoken in Europe before Indo-European languages were adopted, it might even be genuinely related to the language spoken in Mesolithic Scotland, although we will probably never know. It would be interesting to know how the names sound to a native Basque speaker....

Rick said...

You're exactly right that 'meaningful' names would tend to sound Native American to the modern English-language ear.

I'm not surprised that a reader who did not look at the author's note might think the story was set in the Pacific Northwest. A hunting-gathering culture on a west-facing coast, perhaps with knowledge of water to the east as well, could be Vancouver Island or the Olympic peninsula. And without blue woad, who would take the people for ancestors of the Scots?

Carla said...

It never occurred to me that it was set anywhere other than Scotland, but that's because it was recommended to me in the first place as a book about the mesolithic Scottish tsunami. If I had picked the book up independently, without that recommendation, it might have taken me a while to work it out.