Review of And then forever

Christine De Luca is one of the most well-known and successful Shetland poets. In her five main collections, we see a poet who has grown in confidence and who has been unafraid to widen the thematic bounds of Shetland dialect writing. She is a poet who is willing to place very traditional images and ideas alongside things from the early twenty-first century. This growing confidence has led De Luca to try her hand at a form not often taken up by local writers, the novel. De Luca's contemporary Robert Alan Jamieson, in his latest novel Da Happie Laand combines a view of contemporary Shetland with a history which sees Shetlanders involved in the great emigrations of the nineteenth century and, in De Luca's novel, And Then Forever, we see her utilising some of the same themes and ideas.

And Then Forever gives us two love stories. The historical part of the novel tells us about Gilbert Jamieson, a Shetlander who emigrates to Winnipeg in the late nineteenth century; and the modern bit follows the fortunes of his granddaughter, Katherine Maitland, a divorcee living in Edinburgh. Gilbert falls for Bridget O'Donaghue, an Irish Catholic, but, because he was raised as a Methodist, her father does not allow their relationship to continue, meaning they have to meet clandestinely. Trying, with increasing desperation, to find a way they can be together, Gilbert even goes to see a priest to discuss becoming a Catholic, but he cannot accept the faith. It becomes clear, both to the reader and the characters themselves, that they can never marry and, in some of the most moving scenes in the book, Gilbert and Bridget come, heartbreakingly, to accept the situation. When he has to go back to Shetland to see his dying mother, the relationship finally comes to an end.

In the modern day part of the book, things work out rather more happily, as Katherine, after a fairly whirlwind romance, agrees to marry Peter MacPherson, a fellow middle-aged divorcee. Peter proposes after arriving unexpectedly in Winnipeg, where Katherine has gone to research her grandfather's stay in the colonies. Katherine does remember her grandfather but knows very little about him. In Canada she reconstructs his story by visiting the archives and then gets in touch with a descendant of Bridget's, thus bringing together the two families who were cruelly broken apart more than a century before. This meeting allows Katherine to symbolically complete the story of what happened to Gilbert and, when she goes home to Scotland, she carries with her some things that belonged to him - things which, accompanied by his story, will become treasured objects for his great grandchildren.

In her investigation of history, as I have already hinted, De Luca is working some of the same ground as the other Shetland authors who have tackled the novelistic form. In John Graham's work, for example, and in all Jamieson's novels (expect A Day at the Office), we see them move through various periods of Shetland's past. In Da Happie Laand, the effects of emigration are long-reaching and even, perhaps, destructive. In And Then Forever, De Luca, as she does in her verse, seeks to find reconciliation and continuity between the past and the present. Gilbert goes to Canada full of hope and, despite his first few years being difficult, he eventually starts to get better jobs and starts to think he might live there forever. But, because his love affair ends so crushingly, he goes back to Shetland in psychological shreds. As Katherine and Bridget's niece look at a photo of Gilbert, Katherine remarks:

'Well, seemingly he was quite depressed and strange when he got home. No one ever knew what was wrong. They didn't speak about things like mental illness then I suppose. Anyway when the First World War was declared he must have been called up. I know he was in France. He was one of the lucky ones, came back alive . . . but I believe worse than ever.' (P.254)

Emigration (even more so than the war) tears Gilbert apart, but it also tears apart the story of Katherine's family. What began as an exciting adventure becomes dreadful and, because of what happened to him in Winnipeg, Gilbert's story has never been told. Wanting to tell her own daughter about Gilbert and his wife, she tries to create a mental picture of them:

The two of them would sit, one on each side of the Modern Mistress stove, the silence uncomfortable even to a child; the only noise the hiss of the Tilley lamp. Gilbert and Marion Jamieson. Yes, my grandparent's house had been a house of silence, tiny acres of it. (P.50)

This silence, the repression of Gilbert's story, is the legacy his involvement with Empire has left, and it is up to Katherine to become his narrator. In the Winnipeg archives, after making good progress, a research assistant Katherine has employed says to her:

'I often say this kind of research is for people who have a hole in their lives. Something needing to be filled, to be solved. (P.210)

By piecing together his story, by seeing the places he lived and worked, and by spending time with the remaining members of Bridget's family, Katherine is able to find a way of reconciling the disruptive legacy her grandfather has left for her.

These two strands of the novel are blended together deftly as the stories progress. I must confess that I preferred the historical parts, perhaps because they offered more drama, and also because the doomed nature of Gilbert and Bridget's relationship leads to greater pathos than the idyllic coupling of Peter and Katherine. In her well-handled use of history, De Luca has written a novel which is large in theme and scope but the relationships of the characters remain at the centre of the book. It is worth noting that none of And Then Forever is set in Shetland but, in her telling of one family's story, De Luca has produced a fine and moving novel which asks us to think about how the after effects of Empire can still be felt today.

Review of 'And then forever', Mark Ryan Smith, The New Shetlander, Yule Issue 2011 No 258