The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2009, 381 p.

The Gathering Night cover

This is set in Mesolithic Scotland, a time about which very little is known. This gives Elphinstone scope to portray a fully imagined subsistence society with its own mythology and belief systems. Its characters live off the land (and sea) and feel close to the animals they hunt and the spirits which govern all their interactions. (Since it makes sense to the people in the book, that the belief system doesn’t actually cohere is neither here nor there. In any case very few such things do cohere.)

The tale is told (literally) by various of the characters taking turns to narrate the central events round a campfire, perhaps at one of the various gatherings the Auk people, around whom the book revolves, attend throughout the year. The people are prone to humble-bragging of the “I’m sorry this catch is so meagre” or “I’m sorry this gift of food is so inadequate” type.

As events unfold the tightness of the plot becomes apparent. This is cleverly done, things that at first appear unrelated turn out to be pivotal, and the characters within are all believable as actors in the scenario and as people full stop. Apart from their belief in the closeness of their spirits and reincarnation (if a child isn’t recognised by a family member within days of birth it will be cast out,) their intimate connection with their environment, they could be you, me, or anyone you meet. “People like to think their lives are very difficult, just as they like to think their troubles are unlike anyone else’s,” applies to any society as does, “I’m old. I know that people have always cared about the same small things, and they always will,” and the lament that, “There aren’t enough tears in this world for all there is to weep about.”

The cover dubs this “a wilderness adventure” but it isn’t an adventure as such. It is a description of a way of life that may have been, of a simpler kind of existence. It occurred to me a few days after reading it that it therefore bears similarities to the same author’s The Incomer and A Sparrow’s Flight. It also aligns itself firmly with the Scottish novel in general in its descriptions of land- (and here especially) seascape.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by an Elphinstone novel.

Pedant’s corner:- Amets’ (Amets’s,) Aurochs’ (Aurochs’s,) “that man would never had given us his name to pass on” (would never have given,) Oroitz’ (Oroitz’s.)

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