Book Review – Elemental by Amanda Curtin

There are so many aspects of this book that snagged my heart that I would need to do several reviews to do justice to all those aspects. So I will content myself in this review at least, by saying that this is a deeply believable book, deeply forgiving and deeply lyrical. As with all of Amanda Curtin’s work, the language is achingly beautiful, the characters are raw and real and the story has the sweep of an elegy.

When Meggie Duthie, former herring girl from the north east of Scotland comes to Western Australia in 1910, she leaves behind an unspeakable past shadowed with the ghosts of her beloved sister, mother and that boy, Bruki’s Sandy. But she comes with her blue-eyed cooper-boy, Magnus Tulloch, who makes her a promise, who gives her his heart, breath, blood when she had none of her own (p 203). Meggie’s legacy to her granddaughter Laura is her story, handwritten in three thick exercise books, which Laura acquires at a time of crisis in her own life. As Laura waits for her injured son Cooper to awaken from a coma, she reads her grandmother’s journals and wonders if it is possible there’s a gene for heroism (p 418).

Meggie has survived childhood in bleak Roanhaven, where her Granda Jeemsie, a glowering, scumbling, salty man, with ears like whelks and brine in his eyes, (p 41) mutters balefully about the misfortune of a having a red headed child in the family. Then as Fish Meggie, hands infected by gutting and salting herring but still loved by Magnus Tulloch, she loses her sister Kitta and wants to curse Jeemsie Neish for his beliefs, and every last person in Roanhaven for what they condemn and what they let to pass (p 147).

Laura, the granddaughter who inherits Meggie’s story as a grown woman instead of the twenty one year old for whom it was intended as a birthday gift, wonders if she might have been squeamish about her grandmother’s story when she was younger, whether she would have had the grace to recognise the hope contained within the grimness. As she waits by the bedside of her unconscious fireman son she questions her family’s dark strain of altruism, some ancestral compulsion to rush off a cliff, down a well, into a fire for others. And to hell with the risks (p 403).

Kitta and Meggie, Clementina and Jessie, Stivvy and Magnus, Kathryn and Laura and the remote Granda and Da are people I have lived closely with this past month. I read this book slowly, reluctant yet impatient to finish it, aware that it would change me as a reader and as a writer. A haunting, beautiful, exquisite book and Magnus Tulloch must have the last word – I will not forget you, Fish Meggie.

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

Published by UWA Publishing, 2013.