The Valley at the Centre of the World

Malachy Tallack

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Nick Major

Malachy Tallack’s first book was called Sixty Degrees North. It was a travel memoir that tracked the sixtieth parallel around the world.

The general tone was too self-pitying, but it was a decent debut. His second was called The Undiscovered Islands, an illustrated compendium of imagined places once thought to be real. A kind of intellectual coffee table book, it was certainly more fun than his first.

Tallack has now written a novel. One cannot resist the obvious conclusion that this is an author in a state of formal restlessness. If his writerly voice has been looking for a home in the world, his pen has found one in the novel.

Let’s not get carried away. The Valley at the Centre of the World is not a great achievement. There were times, however, when I thought it might become one. It is set in a small enclave on Shetland and explores the travails of its residents.

The chapters are neatly sequenced into single days over the course of a year. This amounts to a series of snapshots of the characters’ interior and exterior lives. There is no protagonist to follow in the traditional sense, which is to be applauded. Instead, the interwoven stories give us a sense that the community itself is the main character.

Sandy is a young taxi driver and apprentice crofter whose girlfriend Emma has recently left him and moved to the mainland. Sandy is learning the farming trade from Emma’s father, David. Except for an old woman called Maggie who dies early in the novel, David is the only character with the knowledge to pass on the area’s traditions.

Alice, a former crime writer, has moved to Shetland after the death of her husband. She is writing a book called Valley at the Centre of the World, a natural history of her new home. When David gives her a box of Maggie’s belongings, she becomes obsessed with trying to incorporate Maggie’s life into her book. Other characters include an alcoholic called Terry, who is using the valley as a bolt-hole from society, David’s wife, Mary, and a young couple called Jos and Ryan who move into Maggie’s house.

Tallack writes some excellent and brutal descriptions of farming life.This is Sandy butchering a lamb: “He removed the feet and the lower legs. The joints split with a crunch, like the first bite of an apple.

He washed the blade, then lifted the skin around the breastbone and made an incision, first one way towards the neck, and then the other, towards the belly. Lifting the flap of pelt that faced towards him, he pressed the knife beneath, separating the skin from the flesh, like a label from a parcel.”

Apart from the repetitive jarring of the two similes, this is not bad. Yet, there are too many prosaic passages that describe characters painstakingly going about their business. This might be a reflection of the pace of rural life. But slow prose does not have to be boring prose.

Apart from husbandry, the main preoccupation of most characters is that of belonging. David’s thoughts, for instance, are “shaped” by the valley.

“Often it was his thoughts. The slope of it, the tender fold of the land. Somehow it was mirrored inside him. It was part of him, and he could no more leave this place than he could become someone else.” It is this delving prose style that marks Tallack out as a talent. He can unearth the thoughts of his characters, making their inchoate emotions speak for them. For all this, however, he tends to be too much on the side of pathos. So, whether his characters are actually happy or not, they all seem unhappy.

David is the most content, which is probably because he speaks in broad Shetlandic, a dialect that cannot fail to sound jolly. This is dizzying at first, but only because it sits at variance with the plain English of the narrator. In a postscript, Tallack tells us that he hoped to reach a “comfortable balance between linguistic accuracy and general readability” when replicating the phonetics of the island language. He probably could have written with less caution and more Shetlandic. But the main problem with this novel is the ending. The fiery climax and dreamy resolution are signs that Tallack is still a tyro novelist. Nevertheless, he should stick with this novel-writing business. One day, he might write something that really hits the mark.