Carys Davies
Granta, £14.99

On an imaginary island between Shetland and Norway lives a solitary crofter called Ivar. In his forties, his only company is an old horse, a blind cow, and a handful of sheep and chickens.

A few years earlier, his grandmother, mother and sister-in-law all departed, traumatised by the famine they had suffered after their factor made them harvest seaweed rather than use it to fertilise their crops. As a result of that short-lived experiment, the family was reduced to drinking blood from their sheep. Ivar’s father and young nephew died of hunger before the bottom fell out of the kelp market and they could return to their old crofting ways.

An award-winning short story writer and novelist, whose previous novels West and The Mission House were set in early 19th-century Pennsylvania and present day India, Carys Davies uses this fictional storm-battered island, at the furthermost tip of Scotland, as an emblem of the injustice and barbarism of the Highland clearances. It is also a dramatic stage for a story that brings together two vastly contrasting cultures from within the same country, with unexpected – one must also say unlikely – consequences.

Clear is set in 1843, the year of another seismic event in Scottish history, although its impact does not compare with the reverberations, still felt today, of people being driven off their land. In that year, close to 500 ministers, led by the famous Thomas Chalmers, announced their intention to leave the Church of Scotland and form the Free Kirk: so-called because the appointment of ministers would not be determined by landowners but by parishioners. It was a principled, brave and some said foolhardy decision, leaving many ministers on the verge of destitution as they struggled to fund their new parishes and preachers.

Davies’s novel features the Reverend John Ferguson, one of these evangelical dissenters. Formerly minister of Broughton Parish in Edinburgh, he is now in desperate financial straits. Troubled at plunging his wife Mary into a life of penury, he accepts a well-paid job to tell Ivar, the island’s sole occupant, that he is to be evicted to make way for hundreds of sheep.

This unpalatable commission comes via Ferguson’s well-off brother-in-law whose godfather is Henry Lowrie, on whose estate the island sits. If the Reverend Ferguson seems a strange choice of envoy, it is not entirely out of character, or so thinks the cynical Lowrie. In his experience not only did Presbyterian ministers do nothing to prevent the progress of the clearances, but “the Presbyterian doctrine of providence had proved something of a boon in clearing the people – reminding them, as it did, that the events of their lives were no more than the unfolding of God’s will.”

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With great apprehension at so arduous a sea journey, Reverend Ferguson and his wife say goodbye at the Aberdeen quayside. Parting ahead of a hazardous expedition, with no assurance of being reunited, is a theme found elsewhere in Davies’s fiction. What the minister is to discover, on the isolated island, is almost as unimaginably other – and as beguiling – as the American frontier that features in West.

The Herald:

Davies’s talent is for description that brings alive the landscape and the setting and characters of her stories. In Clear, the stench of fish in Ivar’s primitive hovel, or the tang of salt spume thrown over the beach by an “uppity sea” enlivens every page. Hers is a tactile yet spiritual appreciation of place, offering a portrait as powerful as any photograph or film: “There are days when the mist fell like a cloak on to the island’s shoulders; when rain fell in big, coarse drops, melting the soil into a soft brown soup”.

In this liminal location, where it will be weeks before a boat returns to carry them both away (not that Ferguson has yet conveyed his terrible message), neither Ivar nor the minister speaks each other’s language. Nevertheless, a connection is forged as the Reverend painstakingly learns words for birds, flowers, animals and weather, and Ivar, laughing at his pronunciation, rejoices in having company.

Drawing on the old Norn language once spoken in Orkney and Shetland, Davies lovingly – and too lingeringly – studs her chapters with words conveying an entirely other realm of experience: “a fog could be a skump or a gyolm, a blura, an ask or a dunk, unless of course it was a mist, in which case it was a syora or a mirkabrod or a groma, a rag or a nombrastom, a dalareek, a himna, a yema, or a dom…”

As Ferguson quickly learns this new lingo – given the novel’s short timescale he is a linguistic prodigy – Davies’s story is a paean to long-lost languages, and a reflection on what we have lost with their demise. The depth of meaning contained in old Norn, and its effect on the minister underline the fact that words are not just functional, but illuminate the world at a profound level.

While Ferguson is marooned at the outermost limits of the North Sea, his fretful wife decides to join him. The voyage is filled with danger, but she makes for the island, only to discover peril of an entirely different kind.

Davies’s skill at short story writing is evident in this painterly and uncluttered novel. Her grasp of historical mood rarely falters, and each scene is set with minimal description, leaving space for the reader’s imagination.

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Less convincing, and highly improbable, is the culmination of the plot. I can’t comment on this without giving away the story, but I have reservations about the authenticity of events that, rather too abruptly, bring the novel to a close, especially given the personality of the Free Kirk minister at their centre.

Although the novel’s open-endedness is fitting for a story shaped by elemental powers, the final pages feel rushed. Even so, Clear is a memorable and beautifully told tale. By its end, Davies’s evocation of a great disruption in the lives of her characters has proved as cataclysmic as the religious breakaway it springs from.