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Susan's Review

Award-winning writer Carys Davies’ new novella Clear is an unmissable story combining historical facts and imaginative inventiveness. The Author’s Notes at the end of the book describes the two momentous moments in history with which Davies’ characters must contend. One was the Great Disruption in the Scottish Church of 1843, which gave landowners the power of patronage over the clergy, and which ministers rebel against the edict and establish the alternative Free Church. The other event, known as the Clearances, was a programme that allowed landowners to forcibly remove whole communities of the rural poor in the Highlands and Islands. The consequences of this manifestly unethical programme were, in Davies’ words, ‘catastrophic for an entire swathe of Scottish society.’ They included massive displacement, exploited labour, starvation and enforced migration.

Clear brings these terrible facts to life through its focus on three characters caught by historical circumstance. John Ferguson is an impoverished ‘rebel’ minister appointed by a landowner to evict a solitary man living on a remote (fictional) island. Desperate for the money needed to establish a new church and to support his wife, John is also burdened with doubts about the morality of the project. The man he is meant to evict is the isolated, stoical Ivar: having survived on the bleak island for years and seemingly content with his life, Ivar finds John, badly injured in the stormy crossing to the island, lying unconscious on the beach. What follows is one of the most evocative, finely crafted and deeply moving stories I have read in years. Initially the two men can’t speak one another’s language: John speaks standard Scottish, and Ivar a now-extinct dialect called Norn (a glossary is provided at the end of the book). But as Ivar nurses John back to health, he teaches this stranger the native words for the physical environment, and then, as their relationship develops, words that express a sense of delight and affection. While this shift into the language of feeling will have profound consequences for the men, the trust between them is also troubled by John’s knowledge of the impending eviction; by Ivar’s growing suspicion of John’s real purpose on the island; and finally, by the arrival of John’s anxious wife, Mary, unable to wait any longer for her husband’s return.

Like many writers before her, Davies uses the setting of an island to raise important social, political and psychological questions. Who has the right to own or appropriate land, and on what authority? Can an island offer an escape from repressive social norms? What might a life of protracted isolation do to one’s sense of self? Clear not only encourages reflection on issues of justice, freedom and identity; it also asks us to respond emotionally and bodily, in our full humanity, to its three memorable characters, as they experience bewilderment, a sense of loss and hope for renewal. The settings of the island and urban Scotland are beautifully described and wonderfully atmospheric. The book’s conclusion is both unexpected and yet, on reflection, subtly prepared for.  

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It will be available in a hardback edition in March.

Publishers Reviews

A wondrous tale of bonds forged when two men are pitted against each other on a remote island during the Highland Clearances, from the prize-winning author of West.