New Shetlander Review - Small Expectations - reviewed by Morag MacInnes
Small Expectations Donald S Murray pub TRP £9.99 - £7.99 inc P&P from the TRP website (http://www.tworavenspress.com/TRP_Small_Expectations.html)
We have all done it, haven’t we, us island folk: go away, get an education, learn a new language – and then come back to find ourselves tongue tied. In Orkney, when you came back fae Sooth, they accused you of ‘chantan’. It was a disgrace, to be caught with a different lilt to your voice.
Donald Murray has clearly experienced all of this in spades. This collection is soused in longing. (I nearly said in herring, which might also work…) Longing for what’s lost. The past tense dominates.
The first thing to say about the book is that it’s beautiful. An atmospheric and germane cover by Douglas Robertson absolutely catches the drive of the language, theme and mood. Plus the paperback mimics a hardback, with a very useful bookmark – flap. I don’t think I explained that well, but hold the book and you’ll see; it’s delightfully, usefully designed, and maintains the Two Ravens Press look we are coming to recognise, yet has its own identity.
Even the choice of type echoes one of Murray’s inspirations – Dickens, in particular, of course, Great Expectations. That archetypal leaving and returning to loss and learning story – Pip’s, - been reinterpreted many times, most interestingly perhaps by Lloyd Jones. You’ll recall that Pip had to come to terms with the fact that his benefactor was not the crazy Miss Havisham, guardian of the heartless tantalising Estella; but a broken down ex con called Magwitch.
Murray too is coming to terms with an inheritance which draws him, infuriates him and makes him despair by turns. It makes him – like Pip – investigate himself and his assumptions about his past.
This man writes great prose, brave, surprising, experimental, funny. Unlike many Scots writers, he can use myth and legend without descending into bathos. His Lewis boy grows gills, becomes a peat, has golden horseshoes, drowns his parents before they can drown him – as fine a series of meditations on the confines and constraints of island life as I think I’ve come across. There’s an unruly tongue and a Russian barber with wild scissors…there’s Murray Murray, who has the gift of seduction by song, and the boy who, through love, becomes the Northern Lights.
There are bewitched gutting knives, magic porridge pots, the dirty fish mackerel served in a hundred ways., ghosts on roll on roll off ferries – there’s a colt who becomes human…anyone who has lived on islands will recognise much grounded knowledge here, of life and work and custom – and get a deal of enjoyment from Murray’s way of up ending expectation. His assurance with language, and the way he knows his landscape and folk inside out, means you don’t question that the magic transformations happen. Because he says it, it’s so.
The prose – they’re folk tales really, a handbook for the modern haunted islander – are interleaved with poetry, - and some of the poems are linking the Pip theme with larger ideas about wordlessness, loss of simplicity. Murray is a rhyme man. This is unusual and interesting. I wonder if it’s a conscious decision to do, again, with the culture he’s anatomising. Read aloud they will sound powerful, a gesture to an oral tradition that’s going. They don’t all work – who can say that of any collection – but many are profound, simple and stunning. In Songs of an Inner Émigré he describes:
‘ the sense of restlessness
that overcomes us when we see greylags graze
on a green field in a northern isle
…we envy them their trespasses, how latitudes of light
give way to flocks that follow principles of flight’
A poem about whelk gathering becomes a meditation on the impossibility of escaping responsibility.
‘it comes for us. A needle tugging life
out from where it’s hidden. It will one day find
us both within dark stillness and the turbulence of light’
This is a series of meditations to return to often. To call it a handbook of loss would be wrong; that implies that there’s nostalgia and sentiment here, and there isn’t much of that. Besides, it’s hard to ignore these things; they are part of island inheritance and have their place.
No; Murray is a thoughtful brave investigator into the power of roots to strangle or nourish. He uses every source there is – but has his own quirky take. I think I want a novel next. With a magic colt.