George Mackay Brown - Greenvoe (1972)
- Dave Martin
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Transposing the Orcadian rhythms of his critically-acclaimed poetry to a prose work which focuses on the dissipation of an island community proved a masterstroke for George Mackay Brown. In the absence of any real plot, we find ourselves embroiled in the lives of the inhabitants of Greenvoe, a village on the fictional island of Hellya, constructing the greater truths of their lives from the minutiae of petty conflict and amity in their relationships. This is all threatened with the arrival of Black Star, a secret military project which causes a boom economy in the village before the inevitable bust, and a descent into ochlocracy.
The majority of the action takes place over a single week, watching the fortunes of an ensemble cast that would make Robert Altman blush ebb and flow with the island tides. Transcending the parochial setting to reveal a parable about the impact of ultra-modern technology on a primitive society, Brown warily circles the rural sentimentality of the Kailyard school but is never content with its cloying simplicity. And although undoubtedly a better poet than he was a novelist, in his works of elegiac social realism the islands of Orkney themselves are transformed into a mythological landscape worthy of the Norse sagas which influenced his work.
His poetry and prose, the latter of which perhaps never reached the heights of Greenvoe again, drew a bridge between Orkney, Norwegian territory until 1470, and the Scottish mainland, uniting two traditions in lyrical paeans to the beauty and cruelty of island life. For a hint as to how much Brown's debut novel has been assimilated into the fabric of Orcadia, Northlink Ferries named one of the bars on their vessel Hamnavoe after it, a gesture the hard-drinking Bard of Orkney would surely have tipped a glass to.
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