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Call of the Undertow, by Linda Cracknell

review published on January 29, 2014. Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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Linda Cracknell has published two collections of short stories, Life Drawing (2000) and The Searching Glance (2008), as well as three pocket books from her own imprint, “best foot books.” In 2009 she edited a book of essays on nature writing, A Wilder Vein, and a long piece of her creative nonfiction about a walking trip was excerpted in Cleave, a collection of Scottish women’s writing (2008). Cracknell also adapts stories for BBC radio plays and teaches creative writing on a freelance basis.

Her first novel, Call of the Undertow, comes from small Glasgow press Freight Books – but don’t let the untried nature of the publisher put you off. This is a terrific debut, well worth seeking out. The northern Scottish setting and the power of history and mythology will certainly remind readers of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Amy Sackville’s Orkney, but Cracknell’s is a more satisfying story than either of those novels, with strong prose building the subtle and memorable suspense plot.

Divorced cartographer Maggie Thame has moved from Oxford to the far north of the Scottish mainland to get away from a tragic mistake in her past. She moves into Flotsam Cottage on a six-month lease, planning to throw herself into her freelance work on a new atlas of West Africa. It seems she is in danger of becoming a recluse, until the local primary school invites her to make a presentation on map-making. Whilst there she becomes impressed by the work of a precocious but strangely androgynous boy named Trothan Gilbertson. His map shows not just the features and prehistory of the area, but also its many myths and secrets, which makes him unpopular with some local businessmen.

Soon Trothan is letting himself into Maggie’s cottage at all hours to work on his map. Between overseeing his project, taking long walks and cycle rides, birdwatching along the cliffs, baking bread and hosting her sister Carol – who seems especially wary of Trothan – Maggie hardly has time to devote to tracing the growth of Lagos. As she works down to the wire on her maps, she must decide what her relationship to Trothan will be, and whether she can make amends for her past. Can anyone truly have a second chance in life, or is making the same mistake twice an inevitability? It is especially troubling for a cartographer to have no clear picture of her future; “Here, the map-maker was lost.”

Cracknell masterfully evokes the wild coast of Scotland, the almost unearthly nature of the lingering summer light in northern climes – where all is moonlight, crashing waves, elusive seals (or are those selkies?), and the wheeling and crying of seabirds. There is something deliciously creepy about the novel’s setting, with derelict farm buildings and an abandoned church also serving as backdrops. Along with flashbacks to the accident that changed Maggie’s life, traces of the region’s archaeology provide a sense of deep and meaningful history.

An eerie and evocative debut novel: read it and be transported.

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