The Immersion Method in Carys Davies’ Clear

Clear, a new short novel from Carys Davies–author of West and The Mission House–concerns the HIghland clearances from between 1750 and 1860, when landlords seeking larger incomes evicted tenant farmers from the Scottish Highlands and islands, and in many cases replaced them with sheep. The story, though, is set in motion with the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Reverend John Ferguson, objecting to the power of landowners to appoint church ministers, has resigned from his Church of Scotland post, joined the breakaway ministers, and must help them figure out how to fund themselves. He and his wife Mary have more personal and pressing needs, so he accepts a land clearing assignment on an island between Shetland and Norway, where a single man named Ivar lives. After leaving his supplies–including a Chekhovian pistol–in the shack used by the landowner Lowrie’s men, John goes for a walk, and betrayed by a crucial slippery stone, falls off a cliff. Ivar finds his drenched satchel, and in it a calotype of Mary which he treasures, and later John himself, whom he will nurse back to health in his little house. Clear uses very short chapters alternating between John’s and Ivar’s perspectives to see them along from initial ignorance and distrust towards familiarity.

Davies’ language is contemporary, but there is an older one in play here, Norn, once spoken on Orkney and Shetland before it was replaced by Scots, and now extinct. Ivar must teach John some of it so that they can chat. John has brought with him a work in progress, a translation of the Gospels into Scots, but when his satchel goes for a sea-bath, the text is washed away. It is on the very same pages that he starts writing down the Norn words, varieties of bog and swamp including “gob,” “gagl,” “degi” and “dyapl”, or the onomatopoeic hoss and horl of the sea. If this palimpsest already sounds like a too-obvious metaphor for John’s going native, wait for it to double: also washed away is John’s mainland authority, his Summons of Removing which was supposed to compel Ivar off the island. John is left with the question of what to tell Ivar about himself, and new possibilities replace the original assignment.

The best thing on offer in Clear is a sense of The Way They Lived Then, in solid, durable terms. Davies shows Ivar scavenging food from a cliffside, “moving rapidly across the sheer sea-facing wall from one toehold to another, gathering eggs from narrow ledges in his net, his big heavy body in the grip of the squeaking rope,” or fixing up the house with turf and straw, “up onto the roof and down again, trudging back and forth over the boggy soil and every so often pausing to sharpen his knife.” Norn, with what are to us new sound combinations, and its manifold words for natural elements—John learns six that he can only translate as “rough sea”—calls his and our attention to the physical world. And further on in his studies, he learns the conventional metaphors, which are brought back to life in Ivar’s mind through explanation: “Stroda, meanwhile, seemed to describe the backwash of the waves against the steep rocks, as well as great agitation or hurry in a person; a hobbastyu was both a turbulent sea and a great difficulty, or dilemma”. After meeting John, Ivar is aware of himself as a visible form as if for the first time. He has no mirror, but he studies “the splits and grooves on the backs and palms of his hands and the wisps of wool that were caught in them, his legs and his bare feet and the muscle at the root of his thumb.”

The time is already running down on John’s assignment, and there is another plot to be introduced with a literal “Meanwhile”… Mary, staying in Perth with relatives, hears of a violent incident over another eviction involving Lowrie’s “factor”, Strachan, a very bad man (with a sickle-shaped scar by his mouth!) Worried about John, she makes her way to the island to check up on him; her chapters are added to the rotation between John and Ivar. Through her, we get an escape from the remote setting, with flashes of a Scottish tour from Perth, to Penicuik, Leith to Kirkwall, and so on, and even a curious link to the bigger world: her false teeth are set using a new substance called vulcanite rubber, an invention by her dentist’s expat cousin’s American friend, Mr. Goodyear. In telling us here and there about Mary’s attitudes towards church, and her marriage to John, Davies is preparing us for the truly silly happenings of the last few chapters, for a something or other, both miraculous and mundane, which comes ex machina.The late turn will seem too sudden to some readers, and they might consider the rushed, sheepish ending that follows to be a mercy. Others might be pleased by the surprise, or even heartened as Davies insists that amid strong customs, across thick obstructions, people can choose their own paths. 

See Also

By Carys Davies
Published April 2, 2024

Kazuo Robinson

Kazuo Robinson is a writer based in New York. His reviews have been published by The Adroit Journal, Cleveland Review of Books, The Oxonian Review, and The Millions. He maintains a Substack at where he writes about fiction.

Source link