Vulpes Libris

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.

The Curiosity Cabinet, by Catherine Czerkawska

Perhaps we need to consult more in the den – I had no idea that the Island in Anne’s choice yesterday would be so close to the island setting of mine today (and that after I’d made such a point of saying that there is no discernible theme this week).

Catherine Czerkawska’s novel The Curiosity Cabinet is set on a fictional Hebridean Island, Garve, or Eilean Garbh. It reminded me of a gentler version of the island of Raasay, and made me yearn to go back; in fact, it is based on the island of Gigha, which has immediately found a place on my holiday list. I love islands and all that is unique about them. I love the idea that each island is a miniature world, with tiny bays, moors, mountains, and that is so easy to shrug off the day to day and behave as though the mainland is cut off. I also know that this holiday face is not all there is to it. I had just come back from an island holiday when I read this novel, and it was perfect for me in preserving for a little longer the vivid memories of what I’d loved about it and what makes me keep going back.

The novel consists of two interlocking stories, one present day, one set more than 300 years ago. In the 21st Century, Alys Miller comes from her home in Edinburgh to Garve for a summer holiday while her eight year-old son is away with his father and new stepmother in Italy. Alys has vivid memories of holidays on Garve with her family when she was a child, and of the friendship she and her brother made with an island boy. Naturally, after a day or two on a small island, she meets him again – his name is Donal McNeill. They share their memories of their childhood friendship and they pick up their relationship where it left off 25 years previously, with a boat trip that Alys had to miss. From this beginning grows a beautiful and moving modern love story.

Woven around this is a much darker late 17th century tale of another incomer to the island. Henrietta Dalrymple, a prosperous widow at 19 with a baby son, is kidnapped on the road from Linlithgow and bundled across land and sea, while her son and his nurse continue all oblivious their journey to Edinburgh and her brother’s household. Her captor is the island chieftain Manus McNeill, and he has had her brought back to Eilean Garbh as his prisoner by two of his loyal men. She is distraught and destitute, and wracked with mourning for her son. Manus, having fulfilled his contract and feeling the shame of it, wants nothing more to do with her, and leaves her to survive as best she may in his house. At first, she waits for her family to come and rescue her, but finally she tells herself that she is lost in a place where no-one would think to look for her. And from this beginning grows another beautiful love story, as Henrietta learns to be at peace with her fate, Manus finds his conscience and sense of honour challenged by what he has done, and they approach one another warily over the course of a year. I loved the originality of this story – the reason Henrietta had been kidnapped remained a genuine mystery to me (although I think I worked it out just slightly before Henrietta found out). The ‘otherness’ of Highland and Island life and society 300 years ago is very vivid and believable here.

Back in the present day, when Donal takes Alys out for the long-deferred boat trip, they visit an ancient burial place on a tiny island, and Donal quotes his father Iain McNeill:

‘He tells me this is a very thin place’

‘What does he mean?’

He means that the border between life and death, between the natural and the supernatural, is very thin here.’ But Donal says this with a wry twist of the his lips.

‘And is it?’

‘Maybe it is. […]’

There is also this thinness between the 21st and the 17th centuries, and the point at which it is thinnest is the Curiosity Cabinet of the title, a small casket covered in raised work, with the telling biblical scene of Ruth (‘Whither thou goest I will go, and thy people shall be my people’) embroidered on it among images of island birds and flowers – the most allusive possible scene for two women who have to decide whether to leave all that they know for this island. Its drawers contain a scatter of personal belongings – a shuttle, a mirror, a scrap of paper – and a collection of tiny objects that tell of the island – shells, feathers. The cabinet belongs to the McNeills, is on display in the island hotel, once the fortress home of the McNeills, and is the first thing that catches Alys’s eye. Thereafter, it stands for this thin barrier separating the two generations of McNeills and the two women who come over the sea to the island, and in the end it becomes a touchstone for both love stories.

There are so many delights to be found in this novel. The writing is beautiful – lyrical and sensual by turns (and sometimes both at once). It is a delight to read the brief passages in Gaelic – surely the most beautiful language for love, with its soft, liquid sounds. The island is captured by all the senses – not just the landscape, but the sounds, the feel of the land under the feet and the texture of objects, the taste and particularly the scents of it – not all sweetly fragrant, but invariably evocative. The descriptions of the island are vivid enough for the reader to picture the landscape, in all its moods. Here, in the 21st century, we are plunged straight into the beautiful summer:

The island is full of flowers. Ashore, Alys knows that honeysuckle will clutter the hedgerows like clotted cream, weaving a dense tapestry with marching lines of purple foxgloves. Earlier in the year there would have been clumps of thrift, a wild rock garden defining all the bays. Later, meadowsweet will fill the hedges and ditches. But now there will be pink roses and yellow irises. There will be nut-brown boats drawn up on the pale sand, and dress-suited oystercatchers patrolling among the seaweed. As the ferry comes to shore, she notices that the sea around Garve is still that shade of turquoise that she has seen nowhere else. The light is different here; the colours are brighter and more luminous. None of that has changed. It is the same as it always was.

And from the 17th century, another mood altogether:

She picked her way down the muddy track to the bay where the boat had landed and sat down on a rock to watch the sea, a succession of long, powerful waves breaking constantly on the sand. The light was steely, a silvery dazzle on the water that chilled her just to look at it. And this was the sheltered side of the island. To the north and west, so Ishbel had told her, the seas were much fiercer.

The sand was white and clean, apart from a few shells and small pieces of glistening seaweed, deposited like question marks at haphazard intervals. Henrietta got to her feet and walked along the tideline. When she looked back she saw the thin meander of her own footsteps and the sight of them made her more desolate than ever.

So, the island is unfolded for us in all its moods – from the outset we are shown that it is not always idyllic. Alys arrives in summer, and sees it at its most beautiful and calm; Henrietta is kidnapped in winter and the raging weather keeps her a prisoner in the McNeill fortress for months before she ventures out. This is no year-round fairytale – Alys gets it, when she has to do some hard thinking about where her future lies.

[…] she doesn’t know if she really wants to go. Would she miss the city? [..] the shops and the cinemas and the restaurants and the … Would she miss the buzz? What about the winters? says the cautious voice in her head. What about the wind and the rain and that small circumscribed world of the island where everybody, absolutely everybody, knows your business? What about the next year and the one after that?

It is tempting to look for close parallels, even a mirror image, between the stories of Alys and Henrietta, but the novel is so cleverly constructed that these are glancing rather than explicit. Alys has her independence; Henrietta does not, yet they are both strong women who make choices. Both have to resolve the claims of motherhood, and the path to happiness for their sons is different in each case. (I found Ben, Alys’s son, a thoroughly amiable child, such that I looked forward to his appearance – by no means common for me with child characters, so another particular pleasure of this book.) Manus is a man of power, if only within his own domain; Donal, even with his name, in the 21st century is not. Neither are conventionally handsome heroes, but men whose attraction lies in the integrity and the physical prowess that comes from their oneness with their island home. I was wondering about a sense of imbalance in these stories – in both cases the women are Ruth – they have to leave their home and go to the island. But they are who they are wherever they live – Manus and Donal essentially come with the island and cannot function fully outside it. To fall in love with them, you have to fall in love with the island.

With its dual stories across time, this novel gave me similar enjoyment to another favourite of mine, Margaret Irwin’s Still She Wished For Company, although there the thinness is stretched beyond the limit and the supernatural does break through. I read The Curiosity Cabinet quickly, all in a day when I did not want to put it down, then went back and read it slowly, dwelling on its beauties. I did not want to leave this island and these people behind.

Catherine Czerkawska: The Curiosity Cabinet. Word Arts, 2011. Kindle edition. 260pp
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1904598420

First published: 2005
For the unKindled, paperback copies are available from AbeBooks and Amazon resellers.

14 comments on “The Curiosity Cabinet, by Catherine Czerkawska

  1. annebrooke
    June 29, 2012

    Sounds an amazing book, Hilary! And good to know we Foxes are always in tune with each other, whether or not we know it … 🙂

  2. Kate
    June 29, 2012

    Interesting about the Irwin parallel: have you read Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time? Also has a cross-time love story, but she’s from the present, and he’s in the past, and she’s in danger of staying in the past if she stays with him. The Green Bronze Mirror by Lynne Ellison does the same thing, but in that one He gets to come back to Her present for a happy ending. (Why does the girl always have to do the travelling?) Anyhow, that’s irrelevant to CC’s novel of two parallel love stories, which makes me wonder why she chose not to connect them. Perhaps just for the art of construction? Decision not to engage in supernatural events? I feel it’s a chance not taken, but i do prefer a supernatural twist rather than a realistic love story.

  3. callyphillips
    June 29, 2012

    I loved Alison Uttley’s Traveller in Time – one of my deepest inspirations when I write time-shift fiction. Though I’d kind of forgotten that! This is a great review, and made me see parallels between Curiosity Cabinet and my own TheThreads of Time (which I’d never thought of before!) There’s plenty of differences too, in The Threads it’s the BOY who does the travelling! And its set in Galloway (so Scotland but not an island) and travels back to Celtic times. Really my central point here wasn’t to promote my own book but to say thanks for showing me a point of connection between our work which I’d not thought of before. But if you liked CC you might like The Threads of Time – available at Amazon and recently reviewed by John A A Logan at Indie ebook review site. ( check it out on the contemporary virtual bookshelf

  4. Catherine Czerkawska
    June 29, 2012

    Kate, they are connected but not in any overt way – and that was deliberate. (Thank-you for making me think about this!) I like Alison Uttley’s novel and that wonderful Elizabeth Goodge book, The Middle Window, which I read years ago when I was in my teens, and which I’m sure fed into The Curiosity Cabinet. But I think Hilary describes it pretty exactly as ‘glancing rather than explicit.’ It’s fascinating to me as a writer when somebody understands what you have tried to do almost better than you understand it yourself. I was anxious that it shouldn’t be explicit, because I wanted this to be two real and independent love stories connected by the ‘magic’ for want of a better word of the island with all its layers of history, parallel but like parallel lines never meeting. The connections are there, but they are deliberately delicate, stitched across the two sets of lives, like the embroidery on the cabinet I suppose. While I was finishing this novel (which began life as a trilogy of Radio Plays) I was also researching a big history of the Isle of Gigha, (called God’s Islanders) and what struck me constantly was how the layers of the history of these people were built up and very subtly connected within a small space, over time. I’m not explaining this very well – if I could, I suppose I wouldn’t have written the novel. But I think ultimately, what I was aiming for, was a sense that everything is somehow connected, so that past problems might – just possibly – be resolved in the present – but also that nothing can ever quite be resolved, because time passes and things and people change whether we want them to or not.

  5. Kate
    June 29, 2012

    and I thought I’d read everything Elizabeth Goudge had ever written! Rats, have to go look for that one now … I understand the need to try to create a textural palimpsest in words and experiences and feelings, I can see that working well. Have you read Alan Garner’s The Owl Service? That’s much more like what you’re trying to do, but with added supernatural weirdness even if the two stories don’t actually connect.

  6. Kathryn Burnett
    June 29, 2012
  7. Catherine Czerkawska
    June 29, 2012

    Oh yes – the Owl Service – one of my all time favourite books! I badly wanted to dramatise it for Radio 4, back when I was doing such things, but somebody else got there first. A truly amazing book!

  8. Hilary
    June 29, 2012

    Thank you all for your most interesting comments – and the book recommendations – and in particular thanks to Catherine for coming here to comment. You’re very kind – I’m so glad to know that at least I haven’t thoroughly misunderstood what you were trying to do! Which is one of my greatest fears when reviewing fiction.

    Is this the place, I wonder, to say that, in actual fact, I was delighted that the barrier between the present and the past was stretched very thin but remained intact? I think, even, subconsciously I was reading the novel thinking ‘oh dear, any minute now Alys will be communing with the cabinet and will see Henrietta outside the window – please no, not on my account.’ I was in the mood for a story that gave the numinous full rein, but stayed in the world we know, and in the realms of the possible. That is real fiction magic for me, full of lovely wish fulfilment, although (given that I love ‘Still She…’ so much) I also enjoy playing with time shift – and I shall be looking out for these titles with pleasure – but it leaves me colder. I loved your image near the end, Catherine, of the island as a polished, striped pebble, with layers of the past showing through. ‘Everything matters and nothing is lost’. (Mind you, that’s only achievable on a small island – try that in a Home Counties commuter town, and it might make your head burst).

    And yes – if I had any little question left in my head, it, too, was ‘Why is is always the women who travel?’ I now know it’s not, but it did make me wonder if it was a compliment to women as adaptable and resilient creatures, or an exploitation of the fact that we’re adaptable and resilient 😉

    I’d better stop before I make even less sense … . Thank you all again!

  9. Catherine Czerkawska
    June 29, 2012

    Thank-you so much, Hilary. That is exactly what I hoped to achieve!

  10. Jackie
    June 30, 2012

    Hilary, I have to say that this is one of your best written reviews, ever. It was actually poetic, especially at the beginning. And the book sounds terrific, I really liked the quotes from it, so vivid. It certainly sounds like 2 intriguing stories set in an atmospheric location. I’ll be looking for this one at the library!

  11. Hilary
    July 1, 2012

    Thank you, Jackie – that is so kind. I hope the library can find you a copy.

  12. Elizabeth Krall
    August 11, 2012

    I will also be having a look in my library for this book. The review and the comments have whet my appetite! I have a weakness for novels set on Scottish islands, and this one sounds intriguing.

  13. Pingback: Ice Dancing, by Catherine Czerkawska « Vulpes Libris

  14. Pingback: Alt-pub on Vulpes Libris – a round-up. | Vulpes Libris

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