“Their long horns drooped and they seemed half asleep, unable to
feel his presence.
Perhaps I am not real, he thought, if the beasts don’t notice me.
Perhaps I’m already dead, a ghost. But the cold rain and his
soaked clothing persuaded him otherwise. Bits of grass and
buttercups stuck to his shoes.”
The words are from an early page in Montréal poet and novelist Louise Carson’s recent novel In Which, Being Book One of the Chronicles of Deasil Widdy. The story takes place some 300 years ago in the daunting, varied land- and seascape of southwestern Scotland between the Isle of Man and Glasgow.
When we initially meet Deasil he is about to venture for the first time beyond the village of Sithford, where he was born. He is a tall young man, barely out of his teens but already endowed with the full strength of a man in his prime. He is being seen off at early dawn by a washerwoman who has always been a surrogate mother to him, his real mother having given birth to him at the moment she was dying by hanging. (Like many mysteries of In Which, the intrigue of her hanging shall remain unspoiled by an explanation here.)
The washerwoman gives Deasil a bag of oatcakes and dried apples to give him a start on his journey. Other than that, all he takes with him is a caul he wears tied around his neck as a memento of his unusual birth. None of his fellow villagers are about, and Deasil would rather not reveal to people that he is leaving. He has a past that marks him as somewhat of an outcast and possibly untrustworthy, so he is cautious about arousing suspicions. He’d rather leave everything about the village behind him, especially the dark memories of incidents in his youth, if they were possible to forget.
In Which has some of the features of a picaresque novel, in that its protagonist goes from one adventure to another on a sojourn of discovery. Deasil, however, is neither rogue nor rascal nor quixotic dreamer, as picaresque heroes or anti-heroes tend to be. Having not much of a plan except to distance himself from his village, he keeps out of sight or else is careful to present himself with an inconspicuous demeanour, tramping across the highlands and meadows, wending through forests, and hazarding river crossings, looking for a town where he might find work. In a matter of hours he has become a jobless wanderer ever subject to turns of fortune over which he has little control, one who is driven to search for something that he is as yet too inexperienced to define.
In the highlands he encounters members of Scotland’s famous parallel world of ghosts, fairies, and “little people dressed in green” who travel across the land, invisible yet legendary to most people. They are creatures who appear to Deasil at intervals before they disappear. They do not interact with him and might well be apparitions, yet as readers we feel that they belong to him, or he to them, in some otherworldly way.
Eventually Deasil comes to the River Nith, of which he has heard and which he hopes will guide him to a town where a workman is needed. He has spent a sum of days and nights exposed to the vagaries of highland weather and has exhausted his meagre provisions. When he arrives at Dumfries, a town of seamen, he is eager to accept any task that comes his way. Little can he imagine that ahead is not only work, food, rest and comradeship, but a larger world of contraband, thieves, smugglers, and the men who pursue them or at least their stash of stolen goods. There are the excise men, sailors and captains of the Royal Navy. He escapes from one danger to another as circumstances force him to work with first the lawmen, then the criminals, then back again. Those roles do not come to him by nature. His young world has only been heretofore that of the gallows, something more like a curse than an adventure. However, he finds brief but supportive receptions from some of the villagers he meets along the way. Some of the older men give him useful advice as to whom to trust, and their wives (usually cooks) provide him with a warm, nurturing care beyond practicality.
Louise Carson’s biography at the end of In Which mentions that her past accomplishments include singing in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company. There is a suggestion of music for the stage in her novel, with its lyrical settings and dramatic passages. Deasil’s sea adventures bring to mind Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, which has the same nautical atmosphere and a young protagonist who is subject to a fortune beyond his control. Carson’s recurring motifs of apparitions on the highlands, set pieces of work crews singing sea chanteys, enjoying hearty meals and drinking mugs of ale after exhausting toils on the sea, or on loading docks, have their counterparts in portions of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Die Götterdämmerung, and Die Meistersinger. Likewise, although Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” Overture was composed a century or so later than Carson’s music through words, they both come from the same spellbinding Scottish seascapes’ inspiration.
Scotland itself grows into more than a motif. It provides a defining gravitas to the novel’s scenes of danger and suspense. The surroundings of forest, glen, firth, turbulent straits and dreamlike, deserted castles form an atmosphere worthy of the human dramas Carson depicts. She adds here and there reminders too of Celtic and Norse strains that contribute to the history of the land.
Last but not least, Deasil has a romantic encounter with a young woman who has secrets of her own that she reveals, as the couple draw close. They each share with one another their true selves, under the calming effects of confession. They momentarily feel a mutual unburdening. For Deasil, he experiences a “true self” he did not have at the beginning of his journey. As a couple, though, they go their separate ways, the woman wedded to the sea and Deasil to some tranquil land he has not yet found. Although they seem destined to go their separate ways, one wonders if sometime they might meet again.
In Which is just 152 pages long, but to read it is to go back in time, witnessing many human demonstrations of kindness, folly, deception and danger, plus the awe of nature that lingers when the book is closed. Its Scottish enchantment never quite leaves us. And to think it is merely the overture – a rousing one with much more to come!
Note about the book:
In Which, Book One of The Chronicles of Deasil Widdy, is the first of a trilogy. Book Two, Measured, is slated for publication this summer, and Book Three, Third Circle, in 2020. All are from Broken Rules Press, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec. Available through the author at: email@example.com.