Margaret Duthie Tulloch is a storyteller whose bedtime tales of Fish Meggie, the Gutting Girl from the Top of the World, delight her granddaughter Laura, her “lambsie”. She promises to write those stories down for Laura, and though her Lambsie has grown up and Meggie is dying, she manages to write it all out, but rather than a series of whimsical stories, Meggie Tulloch writes her own story.
It’s an extraordinary tale of life in a small insular fishing town called Roanhaven, as “far north-east as you can get on the Scottish mainland”. Life there was harsh, governed by the sea, by bitter wind, by daily chores and by superstition so strong that when a little redheaded (reid-heidit) girl runs in front of the fishermen as they’re setting up the ships, they all pack up and go home for the evening.
Young Fish Meggie’s world is so beautifully depicted, and so sensual and engrossing, that it’s a tiny shock every time the narrative shifts to the ‘present-tense’, reminding us that we aren’t there along with Meggie “plucking whelks from pools bear the boatie shore”or cleaning bits of rotten bait off fishing hooks.
Meggie’s story is told in a series of journals that move through the elements: Water from 1891-1905, Air from 1905-1909 and Earth from 1910-1932. The tale is beautifully told, rich with Doric, Scottish and Shetland dialect that’s so pervasive you’ll be using it, aye, in your own speech as you fall into the rhythms of its cadences.
The writing is also full of the detail of its historical setting. The images are harsh and beautiful, from the cold wind biting through hand-knitted clothing and salt-dried skin, to gorse and multi-coloured flowers on cliff faces full of puffins. Amidst the bleak beauty is Meggie’s own wonderfully canny observations as she grows from a wee bairn to a young woman, discovering herself and unravelling the hushed-up groundswell of tragedy that underpins her world:
…when things change, something new enters the space you live in, something you must move with, turn to, chafe against, until you ease a new shape for yourself. But something is lost, too, in the changing, some small piece of your world is gone for good. (54)
In “Earth”, Meggie moves with her husband Magnus, to Perth, Australia, where the fish-girl begins to feel the pull of the earth beneath her feet, exchanging fish-gutting for biscuit-filling. Meggie begins to make a life for herself in Perth, through the first World War and the inherent changes that bring more tragedy, deep friendship, and motherhood to Meggie’s life.
The narrative flow of Meggie’s story is naturalistic, progressive and provides so compelling a voice that it would be quite possible to believe that these are actual journals discovered and reprinted some 30 years after Meggie’s death by her granddaughter. Meggie’s tale on its own would be good enough, but Elemental is far more than simply a beautifully written narrative or even a clever mise-en-abyme in the midst of a modern narrative structure.
There are multiple ‘present-tenses’ that the reader, who assumes the role of Lambsie through the first part of the book, is reminded of as the story progresses. Every so often Meggie pauses her narrative to revisit 1972, referring to her progressing disease, her forgetfulness, or the way in which her daughter Kathryn resists Meggie’s journaling. We also learn, just a little, about young Laura, to whom the story is addressed.
The Coda, “Fire” brings in another present tense – 2011, where young Cooper, a firefighter injured after saving a young girl, lies in a coma in the hospital. His wife Avril is by his side, occasionally relieved by her mother-in-law, Laura, Meggie’s now older granddaughter, who is talking to him and hoping he’ll wake up. When Laura receives a package containing Meggie’s journals, the story is brought full circle and the reader gets to re-experience Meggie’s story through Laura and Avril’s eyes.
So subtly that the transition is almost imperceptible, the story begins to grow beyond Meggie’s personal tale into a much larger one that transcends time, place, guilt and tragedy towards forgiveness, healing, love and ultimately transcendence. Laura is breeding butterflies and as they go through their live cycle the monarchs provide a metaphor for transformation – for what remains and what is changed we we move through the stories of our lives:
Elemental, these small moments of boundarylessness, of finding your place beside butterflies in the order of things. (431)
Elemental is an exquisite novel. Every word of it is tightly crafted and pregnant with possibility. It is self-referential and post-modern in the way it undermines time, creating a genetic and emotional link between characters in multiple times and places. Yet, at the same time, there is something almost old-fashioned and timeless in its deep perceptions and observations, and in the sheer, slow beauty of its prose as Meggie not only discovers herself, but creates a genetic immortality through what she passes on to her children and the way in which she recrafts her inheritance.
Elemental is indeed a wonderful, engrossing read, but it also shines of greatness. There is something so true and real, not just in Meggie’s story but in the way Meggie’s story becomes Laura’s story, and Avril’s story, and indeed, our story.