A warning: Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming is another of 2018’s promised mermaid novels that’s a little short on actual mermaids. However, it’s long on atmosphere, imagination, and a charming lesbian love story. Islay, Mara and Barra have grown up on a tiny Scottish island, after their parents, Signe and Peter, brought them there when the two eldest girls were very small. Signe and Peter have compelling backstories of their own; Signe was once a professional ballet dancer, reaching the pinnacle of her career in Swan Lake, while Peter fought as a lightweight boxer. Logan emphasises the physicality and brutality of both these vocations: we might be unsurprised by the depiction of Peter’s damaging fights, but we also read about the physical toll of Signe’s work: ‘On the first day of rehearsals, Signe’s feet were a size 51/2. After a few weeks they were down to a size 5… She taped her toes before every show, but it wasn’t enough. The skin on the knuckles of her toes was all sliced off, and she danced too often for it to heal. Most nights she bled right through her pointe shoes.’ Signe’s suffering recalls the original Hans Christian Anderson story ‘The Little Mermaid’, where the little mermaid can only gain human legs through feeling as if she’s walking on knives.
Logan’s first novel, The Gracekeepers, demonstrated that she’s one of the few contemporary writers who understands how to handle folktale, and this talent is on full display in The Gloaming. Whether she’s weaving familiar folktales about selkies and mermaids into the narrative, or writing her own myths about concubines in towers, Logan gets what makes folktales work, and isn’t tempted to distort them. However, she also tells a slight but absorbing plot about the love story between Mara and Pearl, a mixed-race girl who comes to the island and keeps an old bus filled with books. Mara and Pearl leave the island together to perform as mermaids on cruise ships and in other glamorous settings, capitalising on their talent for holding their breath. But they are ultimately pulled back to it when they realise that, like many other islanders, Peter and Signe are gradually turning to stone.
The Gloaming felt more widely resonant to me than The Gracekeepers because it is even less rooted in a particular world – whether that’s the real world or a speculative, parallel version. The island feels figurative in a way that’s difficult to pin down. Is it, as Islay speculates, a place that people go to die, a kind of halfway house between life and death, in the same way as the gloaming is halfway between night and day? Or is it actually the only solid place, which explains why Islay, Mara and Pearl’s adventures in the world outside are deliberately sketchy and unformed? “Things off the island – they’re not real,” Mara tells Pearl. ‘All those hours under the water with Pearl,’ she thinks. ‘Their bright wigs and their shimmering tails… But Mara knew now that they’d stayed under the water too long… “It’s just too hard. It’s too much. I don’t want to drown.”‘ Mara and Pearl seem to have lived out the bulk of their relationship in the space between one breath and another, and are now coming back to earth.
The slipperiness of the world-building in both Logan’s novels is simultaneously a strength and their weakness. At times, I wished that she would take firmer hold of this world and expand on its possibilities, think about why certain islanders are turned to stone, and if there really are selkies in the sea surrounding Mara’s island. In short, I wonder what would happen if she made her fiction more firmly speculative, rather than staying in folktale territory. I liked some of her short stories in The Rental Heart precisely because they had to have neater edges. But on the other hand, I can see that The Gloaming works partly because there are no clear rules. It’s an eerie and magical book, even if I’d love to see Logan dive off in a new direction for her next. As for the actual mermaids of 2018: we might have to wait for Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks to meet them.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.