Kirsty Logan writes in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. You can tell: you can feel every enchantment of wild, untamed, and dramatic Scotland in these pages. When Logan says, “the sun dipped into the sea, throwing blood and honey across the sky,” the magic of the firths and the bays is as obvious as the heather on the mountainsides.
THE GRACEKEEPERS is a book about love, in all its incarnations. It’s a book about families and what makes them, about responsibility to those who completely depend on you, and about romantic love, the kind that strikes you in an instant and never leaves.
North has lived with the floating circus Excalibur since she was six years old and—with her bear—is a valued performer by the time she meets Callanish, the eponymous Gracekeeper at another artist’s funeral. Gracekeeping is a tradition, vital to the settling of the dead and to the comfort of the living: it is steeped in ritual and can only be carried out by an appointed person, knowledgeable to its customs.
North has a secret, a secret born of this wild wet world, where trees are scarce and land is not always safe. Callanish has secrets too and the girls are bound by a need to keep these things hidden from the world but not from each other.
The people who populate THE GRACEKEEPERS are split into two groups: damplings and landlockers, each fearful of the other. They are scared of the stories, of the rumours, of strangers. Gracekeepers, like Callanish, inhabit a liminal place between the two groups, where the dead are brought to be returned to the sea. North’s secret is going to leave her in an impossible situation, torn between the loves of her life, and Callanish will have to journey out of her own world to support her.
The world the author creates is a magical, watery reality—different from our own and yet somehow the same—and her characters are recognizable both as everyday people and as one-off extraordinary beings, fluid and surprising. Issues from our own world appear in Logan’s. Callanish is horrified when she first encounters the shameless waste and littering of the Revivalists’ boat, the “frayed ends of rope, the hollow bones of birds, dirty sponges, scraps of fabric sewn with beads.” These issues flow naturally into the story, without polemic, and with the easy elegance that marks Logan’s prose.
These two girls alone in different ways, the seascape, the unusual flotilla of circus boats and coracles, make up a novel I read twice in as many months, and adored both times. It is an absolute treat to be rereading it, especially as I’m lucky enough to be doing it in the furthest reaches and rocks of the Highlands and Islands.
In a world mostly covered with water, Callanish, a Gracekeeper, performs shoreside burials. North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance. Then a sudden offshore storm changes their lives forever.