The Caught by the River Book of the Month
Malachy Tallack – Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home
Polygon hardback. Published 16 July.
A review by Amy Liptrot.
As a teenager in Shetland, unmoored by the sudden death of his father, Malachy Tallack had an idea for a journey, along the line of 60 degrees latitude on which the islands lie: “the world map on our kitchen wall had taught me that, if I could see far enough, I could look from that window across the North Sea to Norway, and to Sweden, then over the Baltic to Finland, to St Petersburg, then Siberia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland. If I could see far enough, my eyes would eventually bring me back, across the Atlantic Ocean, to where I was standing”.
A decade or so later, Tallack sets out to visit each of these places, to discover Shetland’s connection not to the UK but “to a world that is more interesting and more mysterious”, asking “what do we share with them, beyond a latitude?” and exploring the idea of the sixtieth parallel as border where the north begins. He travels “westward, with the sun and the seasons” and this circumnavigation gives structure to a journey not just around the parallel but also into his own struggles with identity and loss.
Of the many fine descriptive passages it is especially strong in Shetland with “the heavy swell of the land” and the “soft churring and grunting” of storm petrels in the walls of a 2000 year old broch. We also visit the streets, courtyards and subways of St Petersburg “revealing itself like a set of Russian dolls”, and the fascinating Kamchatka peninsula in the far east of Russia, nine hours flight and eight time zones from Moscow, where where “we sat together with the people of the Even speaking, drinking tea, and eating the animal we just watched die”. The physical journey sits alongside brilliantly researched digressions into subjects including the origins of cartography, alcoholism in Arctic communities, the development of the portage system across Canadian rivers, the operations of the Siberian gulags, Norse mythology, right wing extremism in Scandinavia and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.
Experiences of hospitality, hitchhiking, sea travel and northern skies are thorough, precise and often funny, and observations are thoughtful. In the forest in Alaska, Tallack feels “as stupid as a bear in a bookshop”, realising, “the forest is filled with signs, but I couldn’t read them. There was a language, a complex vocabulary of which I was barely even conscious, and which I couldn’t hope to understand or translate.”
As well as wildlife and landscape, the north is revealed through interactions with its inhabitants. Two women in a Finnish museum tell of Finns part in the Russian American Company travelling to Alaska. When connections like this are made between the different places on the parallel, the book really sings. Tallack finds ravens, “the great circumpolar bird, the avian natives of the north”, everywhere he visits and sees models for Shetland’s future in the self-governing Aland islands.
Gradually, using landscape and travel as a trigger for self analysis, we are shown brief, powerful windows into Tallack’s life, starting with the death of father, killed in car crash as Tallack waited for him beside a fishing lake (“part of me has never stopped waiting”). His journeys take place over years where he lives in Shetland, including on Fair Isle (“a community greater than the sum of its parts”). However, it is admirably restrained and these personal elements are low in the mix (there’s less about the personality of his father than that of Peter the Great): a curious mixture of both honest and enigmatic.
Tallack’s relationship with Shetland has “always been fraught and undermined by my own past” because “according to the twin pillars of island identity – accent and ancestry – I was an outsider”. But over the course of the journey, the nature of community and the relationships between people and place are explored, finding a new conception of identity that is “not inherited, it is earned” and, when he returns to Shetland, he finds that “the islands’ history could be my own”. Conclusions are never trite, and an unexpectedly downbeat ending, involving a breakdown and another move into exile, shows a writer of subtlety and courage.
Tallack’s persistence in following a line around the world and getting to the actual 60 degree parallel is pleasingly psychogeographic. On the Norwegian island of Stolmen, “the last point of land on the sixtieth parallel before it dropped back into the North Sea and then returned to Shetland” he admits “I was looking for a line that didn’t really exist, on an island about which I knew nothing” but we are right beside him. Tallack is a modern pilgrim and 60 Degrees North is an inspiring pursuit of knowledge, both inner and outer, as well as a tribute to hardy, often-maligned cultures, achieving the tricky balance of intertwining a intelligent, trustworthy voice with personal experience.
The journey would only ever have one destination – home – but also arrives at a place of acceptance. “Loss shapes us like a sculptor, carving out our form,” reads an arrestingly beautiful section at the melting Greenland ice packs: “The absence of my father is the one that has taught me the most… His was the loss that led me to this place”.
Malachy Tallack is the editor of The Island Review. He was also the guest-editor of An Antidote To Indifference issue 9: The Islands Issue.