A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have never taken any interest in Ice Hockey, nor do I know anything about it. But then, before this summer I knew very little about Field Hockey, either, or Rowing (apart from being very partisan every Boat Race Day), and absolutely zero about the Keirin. Then the 2012 games changed all that for me, I loved every minute of them, watched sports I never knew existed, and since then I have been attracted to read novels with a sports setting or a sporting hero that I would never have thought to try before. This year has taught me a lot about the pleasure that can be derived from the strength, grace and beauty of sport, to say nothing of its achievement.
It helps that Ice Dancing is the latest novel by Catherine Czerkawska, whose The Curiosity Cabinet gave me so much pleasure earlier this year. I was intrigued to know how this improbable setting of competitive Ice Hockey in Scotland could be made to work as the background to a story of a passionate love affair set in a quiet corner of the Galloway countryside.
Helen Beckenridge tells the story. She lives with her husband Sandy and their teenaged daughter Fiona on their farm just outside the village. Her life is busy, settled and predictable, to the point of tedium. The farm scarcely provides a living, and certainly would not without the unremitting hard work of both of them – and the prospect of years of that stretch away in front of them. Her neighbour and very dear friend, Louise Marshall, has died, a true bereavement for Helen, removing the one person who could begin to understand her. Then, several months later, Louise’s distant cousin, Joe Napier, has inherited and moved into her cottage. The first person he meets is Helen, returning home from an unexciting evening of line dancing, suspecting that he is an intruder in her friend’s house. After that unpromising beginning, slowly over a few weeks they get to know one another as neighbours. He is an exotic interloper in a quiet rural neighbourhood: a professional ice hockey player, thirty-something, over from Canada with a contract to play for Scottish team The Kestrels in the nearest big town. He is tall, beautiful and strong, seemingly confident and adulated, while Helen has forgotten who or what she is and has suppressed her youthful hopes of what she could have been.
What this novel is about is simply a coup de foudre. It seems the Canadian for that is ‘Love hit me like a puck to the head’, a recurring metaphor that brilliantly sums up what happens. It’s a terrible thing for a player, a puck to the head, and cannot happen without consequences. 31 year old Joe and soon-to-be-40 Helen fall headlong in love with one another. There is no way to explain a coup de foudre, or a catastrophic accident – they just happen. The plot contains no artificial attempt to keep Joe and Helen apart – they are together whenever and however they can be, but what is the future for them? The narrative brilliantly describes the physical imperative they have to be together – not just the snatched times alone, but the magnetic pull they have towards one another when other people are around, their almost uncontrollable urge to touch one another and the risks that brings.
One of the consequences of love as a puck to the head is that they have to find out about one another after it has happened. Helen’s tale is easily told – she has never been farther away from her home than Edinburgh. Her teenage plans to get a degree, study, work, travel, are cut short by family woes and curbed ambitions. She marries at 20, and in her life with her family in their ancient farmhouse it seems she is ‘heft to the hills’. But Joe trails mystery, not least because his life as an elite sportsman takes him into a world that is hidden from and alien to a quiet rural community. He has a dark and dangerous past, including a dreadful secret that has blighted his ambitions too.
So, what did I love about this book? (Because I certainly loved it.) I think in my brief summary above I’ve made it sound too much like a simple, if off-the-scale passionate, love story, but there is much more to the novel than that. There is the setting – this secret love affair is taking place in a particular time and location. The landscape and the community are lovingly and vividly described over the course of a year. The characters that inhabit the village and the community activities are entirely credible, beautifully drawn and treated with affection and respect. Above all, this is a generous book – all the characters have their humanity and gifts on display. There is the way that Catherine Czerkawska, as in her other work, binds the present to the past through photographs, cherished artefacts lovingly described, and records of family history, in a wholly satisfying way. Helen has a secret place, a village abandoned in the clearances, Poldarrach, which represents her love of history and affinity with the past, and is a touchstone for her: Sandy was bored by it, Joe gets it. Joe finds a tiny wrecked fairground carousel in Louise’s barn and starts to restore it, which unlocks his Scots-Italian heritage and its connection to a national tragedy. All this is achieved with beautiful sureness of touch. I loved the emotional temperature of this novel – the depth of Joe’s and Helen’s feelings for one another is charted with precision and deep sympathy. The author has the gift of a language for love, and for sex, that dives deep into the feelings of the protagonists and takes the reader to the heart of their emotions. And finally she knows her ice hockey inside out, and the descriptions of the games with the physical speed, grace and prowess of the players, as well as the brutally gladiatorial turn that the play can take, are wonderfully vivid.
Because Joe is an ‘interloper’, like some long-legged exotic bird among the sparrows and starlings, there is a sense in which I experienced an imbalance between him and Helen. He is a hero to die for – beautiful, strong, clever, sensitive, stunningly articulate, charismatic. Apart from his tendency on the ice to ‘[check] like a ten-ton truck’ we see him as kind, charming and essentially a good man at at the mercy of his troubled past. We know exactly what he looks like, how handsome, how tall he is, what scars of battle he has from his encounters on the ice. Helen is harder to envisage. We have only her own self-deprecating, unconfident assessment of her powers of attraction. We learn her story because she tells it us herself, whereas Joe is wrapped up in his own demons, and the story he tells, over time as he learns to trust Helen, is absolutely not for the faint-hearted – a terrible hidden side to the world of elite sport. I wish I had a clearer picture of Helen than the one that in her self-effacing way she gives us, but seeing her through her own eyes does emphasise the shock to her system of their sudden and mutual attraction. And for all that I was able to content myself by finding her sympathetic and loveable. I just wanted more, but maybe that is the point. Early on when they are getting to know each other Joe says to Helen, who has reacted badly to his tales of groupie behaviour ‘Oh, Helen you’re so …’ He stopped, shaking his head ruefully. ‘What? What am I?’ [...] ‘Nice. You’re a nice Scottish lady. You don’t mind me telling you all this?’
This is a heart-stirring and heartening novel that explores the possibility of healing and moving forward, that celebrates second chances and rejects second best. It is also a novel about adultery, an old-fashioned word but one that cannot be avoided here, that explores betrayal and guilt. The puck collides with the head; planet elite sport collides with a quiet rural backwater. There have to be consequences. However, at the end, instead of one that could yet be sacrificial or tragic, a possible future for Joe and Helen opens up, paving the way for an ending that is ambiguous, but for this reader, full of hope.
Catherine Czerkawska: Ice Dancing. Kindle edition: Wordarts, 2012 211pp