Amanda Curtin is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors of historical fiction. Unlike, say, Hilary Mantel or Anna Funder, Curtin is interested in the people that History tends to sweep over: the labouring poor, marginalised women, and those who evade categorisation as ‘male’ or ‘female’. Curtin may well be the E.P. Thompson of historical fiction. ‘I’m drawn to lives that tend to fall through the cracks,’ she says ‘the humble, the marginal, the quotidian, the “ordinary”. Which is to say: most people .’
In her new novel Elemental, the central character is Meggie Tulloch, a girl born into the fictional Scottish village of Roanhaven in the late 1800s. Roanhaven is a place ruled by the sea. Not only do the villagers depend on the fishing industry for their survival, the sea also functions as the town’s collective id. It is lover, nemesis, mother and siren – ‘witchy’ – as Curtin calls it.
Meggie has an uneasy relationship with the sea and the town. She is a redhead and therefore a harbinger of bad lack. Once, after she innocently crosses the barrier between sea and dock, the fishermen elect to stay in harbour rather than risk ill fortune on the high seas. The sea confirms Meggie’s outsider status, yet it is also her means of escape. As the fishing comes under pressure from industrialisation, Meggie’s labour is needed in the seasonal fish gutting in the Shetlands. Constant exposure to brine causes Meggie’s hands to develop burning, weeping sores called ‘salty holes’. But the gutting also brings exposure to new people and new ideas. This oscillation between the bad and the good, tension and release is the central theme in the novel and its organising principle.
Meggie began to take shape in Curtin’s mind during the writing of her first novel, The Sinkings.
I came across some Scottish superstitions associated with fishing that intrigued me. I squirreled them away in my “ideas file”, and these, together with some other, seemingly unrelated things in that file, were the genesis of Elemental. Meggie came from further, more extensive research into time and place—initially, into the first years of the twentieth century in the far north-eastern coastal areas of Scotland. Her voice emerged for me early in the process—and I felt it very strongly. She is an entirely fictional character, but everything I read about the women and girls of that time—in particular, those strong, brave “quinies” who were the herring girls—helped to shape her.
Research and narrative often share an uneasy co-existence. (Kerryn Goldsworthy recently told me: ‘I can foresee the time… when most people think “a novel” is a made-up story about some real person or event, and that it’s a requirement for the writing of a novel that that real person or event must be exhaustively researched before you start.’) In Elemental the story always has the upper hand. Roanhaven is vibrant and real but Curtin doesn’t bludgeon the reader with her historical research. Of her process Curtin says:
I did a lot of research, and many kinds of research. My reading ranged from dry government reports to old newspapers to evocative memoirs. I travelled to Lerwick on Shetland Main Isle, to Aberdeen and Great Yarmouth, and to towns and villages on the north-eastern coast of Scotland. I talked to people, visited museums, watched women knit, and plunged my hands into the North Sea. And then I started to write. But I wrote from all of this, not with all of this in one hand and a pen in the other. Later, and often, I’d go back to my research to check something or to extend my understanding, so it’s hard to disentangle the writing and research as entirely separate, but I don’t think I ever had to wrestle them apart.
Through Meggie’s warm and evocative voice the reader feels the north wind tearing through the village and the weight of a creel on the back. Having enveloped the reader in such a full and colourful character, Curtin takes a huge risk in the final section of the novel by shifting into a different voice (Readers of Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces will recognise the danger). As Curtin says:
it was a risk I needed to take to tell the story I wanted to tell…The transition is a leap of many years, as well as a change in voice, so it was never going to be conventional… ultimately I have to trust the reader to take the leap with me.
I strongly recommend taking the leap into this vibrant and beautiful book.
S.A. Jones is a writer and regulatory analyst. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Western Australia and is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking.