Review published on May 13, 2018.
Shetland has a bleak beauty about it, scoured by storms that roll in from the Atlantic, it shapes the landscape as much as it does the people that live there. For some islanders, it is the only place that they have known and they would never leave it, but the population, in the scattering of houses in a valley, is slowly ebbing away. David, a third generation crofter, lives in one of the houses in the valley. It is a place that he would never leave; the island is as much a part of his DNA as the skills that he learnt at his father and grandfathers’ side and he takes every day as he finds it. Their daughter Emma was in the house next door, but she has headed south to Edinburgh, leaving her ex-partner, Sandy, learning the essential elements of crofting from David. Terry lives nearby, separated from his wife and son, he is seeking comfort in the bottle. Maggie, who is well in her eighties and the oldest resident of the valley, lives just up the road and there is Alice, formerly a bestselling writer and a newcomer to the island and the valley; she is there for the solitude and still bereft after losing her husband to cancer.
As much as things remain the same, there is change in the air. A property becomes available after a resident dies; Ryan and Jo, a young couple with their own difficulties move into the valley and change the dynamics of the relationships that had developed. At the centre of them all is David who takes everything in his stride with a calm and patient outlook.
If you are expecting a dynamic plot then this might not be for you; this is a book where you get to explore the way that characters change as the circumstances flow. There is plenty of tension in the book, some from the complex relationships of the small number of characters and other tension reflecting how tough it can be to live there.
Reading the accents of the locals does take a bit of getting used to, but it does give authenticity and atmosphere to the narrative. The other star of the book is the place. Tallack’s prose through the book that Alice has begun to write as she emerges from grief describes the land and seascape of the island and the life that survives and thrive there. I think his non-fiction just has the edge for me, 60 Degrees North is an excellent travel book, and I would urge you to read it. However, The Valley at the Centre of the World proves that he is capable of much more as a writer, and I think can sit happily alongside his contemporaries like Melissa Harrison who write fiction with strong natural history undertones. Looking forward to the next book he writes now.
Paul Cheney 4/3
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
Canongate Books 9781786892300 hbk May 2018