I aim never to ruin a book for future readers through review spoilers but with a book of this complexity and depth that may prove a challenge, so be warned…
Equally challenging, I suspect, will be the bookshop head-scratching over which shelf to put this on (I have a soft spot for genre-busting fiction but booksellers prefer their wares to be more easily categorised). Here in the Highlands, readers will find it displayed under local author, of course.
Elsewhere in the UK, if placed on the fiction shelf, the fans of landscape writers such as Rob MacFarlane may miss it and they would love the generous descriptions of Strathspey, as much a character within this book as the well-crafted family which carries the narrative. It is a mysterious read too – but will it sit entirely comfortably on the mystery table? And to place it in the murder mystery corner would be over-presumptuous, for it is that elusive hanging storyline, with its string of clues found, which forms the backbone of the book.
In my view, bookshop proprietors, the solution would be a small table of its own, bang opposite the entrance.
Nor is this a novel about farming, or families, or friendship, or even faith per se, although Of Stone and Sky draws on all these themes. It is certainly a book which explores love, both the love of people for one another – brothers, youngsters, couples – and love of the place in which they live, to the point of obsession, to the point of madness. And the borderline between madness and sainthood can run very thin.
Through the midst of all this messy, gritty rural Highland reality strides a shepherd, a good one: he says scarcely a word and yet his presence – and subsequent absence – is at the heart of this novel. An elegaic note for a whole hill-farming way of life is sounded here and yet the leaving off of possessions, the passing on of a shepherd’s crook feels somehow spiritually uplifting and hopeful. A strange and potent combination.
The word which surfaces and resurfaces as I reflect on this read is real. I know this place too. I have worked within it. I do not just see its landscape but, to some degree anyway, I feel it. To me Of Stone and Sky now seems less like a story I have read than one which I have been told at intervals, perhaps by an unlikely yet appealingly teetotal publican, leaning across the bar of some battered Highland pub in Strathspey or Badenoch (that’s bade to rhyme with spade not bad with sad, incidentally). To anyone who raises an eyebrow at the appealing and unorthodox ‘otherly’ priest-pagan who figures prominently within the plot, I would counter with the story of a real one: a priest who decided his faith would be better served by starting a printing press in a deprived city area, who has helped many local folk overcome their addiction through employment.
If you prefer your Highland fiction to be of the skin-deep Fifty-Shades-of-Tartan variety, this probably isn’t the book for you. It is no light read. Of Stone and Sky is set in the real Highlands, where folk have always struggled against the elements and adversity to survive; where farming (and hill sheep farming in particular) is no longer financially viable without subsidy; where the hands of the rich and powerful have grasped the great estates since the eighteenth century. The owners nowadays are often wealthy and shadowy absentees – and yet they too have their place in the story and should be seen for who and what they are, not as menacing outsiders. They too can heft to place as the generations start to forge more meaningful connections.
The book’s poetic title (reminiscent in more ways than one of Tolkein’s allegory Of Tree and Leaf) suggests a book about wild places and that is the stage on which Merryn Glover places a generation of compelling characters, some more hefted to place than others, to act out their lives. I like my characters flawed and here there are flaws aplenty: a kind of reverse Cain and Abel relationship, star-crossed lovers, physical disfigurement; tragic people, damaged people, broken people – all bound together by the stones and sky which both define and envelop them. And they all feel so real to me now that I could reach out and hold their hand – or in a couple of cases, slap them, as appropriate.
This is a book to which I will return: so few people write about the realities of life here. The highest Highlands is no easy nor ordinary place to live, a sanctuary to many but a prison to some. Which view you take depends not just on wealth (although these days every penny helps) but also on whether or not you ‘hear it in the deep heart’s core’.
A compelling and unusual read which explores the world which is to be found between the visions of the Highlands as heaven and as hell – and I highly recommend it.
Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover is published in hardback by Birlinn, cover price £16.99.