Reviewing: The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

The Gloaming is not at all what I expected it to be. A quietly mournful book of love and grief, it centres mostly around a family of five – boxer Peter, his ballerina wife Signe and their three children Islay, Mara and Barra –  living on a small island where people eventually turn to stone.
Why you would move your children to an island covered in stony old people was never fully explained. Nor was the actual turning to stone part, I wanted to know where this started and how, and why – but all we were told was that it happened. The description of how was excellent, with the slowing of movements and the stiffening of limbs alongside the gentle clouds of dust and the gradual slowing of time. We see glimpses of an outside world full of magic realism, rentable clockwork hearts, people growing antlers and hiding them under hats, alongside the normal working world of shops, boxing, ballet dancers and bar work. Again, however, we only see glimpses of stories that may or may not be true.
The main emotion I felt while reading this book was a sort of subdued sadness. Mourning, loss and broken hearts punctuate it from the very beginning, and when an unspeakable tragedy ruptures the family unit with scars both physical and mental, this sadness seems to settle over them all. Raised on sanitised fairy tales with happy endings, and a sea that takes only your confessions and never your lives, these are children to whom sorrow is an idea that has not occurred right up until it tears their world apart irreparably. They have two choices: run from it, or try to live with it, and neither can make the hurt go away.
I enjoyed the elements of magic realism, and the nods to the unhappy women of folklore and fairy tales – women who had to be trapped in order to stay, who were ‘loved’ so much they were kidnapped, bought and sold, of missing children and loves that last a lifetime or burn bright and quickly like candle flames. With its endless winding guest houses, underground dwellings and the constant call to return to the sea, The Gloaming is a novel punctuated with fairy tale elements whilst also maintaining the steadfast realism of a family falling apart. However I felt something about this book was absent. Part of this was admittedly intentional, with the open ended ‘perhaps they were happy’ style plot within which very little is tied up, as in life. I think I went into it expecting it to be a very different book to what it turned out to be, more The Little Mermaid and less Oh god why is everybody so sad.
The novel focuses on Mara, physically and mentally scarred, living in a house that falls apart as quickly as it is fixed and reading book after book of deaths so she can turn back to the first page and have them all live again. Her life seems to be an eternal repetition of the same, sorrowful day until she meets the mysterious Pearl – a girl who has travelled the world performing, and who draws Mara into her life with promises of escape from the island and tales of love and adventure. In an island where nothing changes, she is something new, so of course falling in love with her is the most natural thing Mara could do. Of course this is a novel full of many forms of love, and not all of them are the same, and not all of them are happy forever. Or are they? I suppose that is the point. If we don’t know the ending, it can be whatever we want it to be. Personally, I’d like to think they were happy, but that’s because I’m tired of the media carousel of sad lesbians.
None of the characters were hugely likeable 100% of the time – but again I sense this is sort of the point. Grief can be selfish, or lonely, or full of rage and irritability, progress and the inability to move. These characters experience their own kinds of grief, and they separate themselves from the world to experience it. Islay runs away to travel a world we don’t see, Signe tries to create the perfect home and fix what was broken, Peter tries to maintain the world there was before it felt apart and Mara, seeing nothing but her scars in the mirror, wants desperately to be someone else. This is, most of all, a lonely book, a colourful world muted by isolation.
Overall it was a book I struggled to fully mesh with, and perhaps that’s why I don’t really know what to make of it. I felt that for me, it was missing something. Perhaps I should reread it in future and see if the experience changes now I know what to expect. It’s still a beautifully written book, with a lesbian relationship that feels neither forced nor sensationalised, and just the right amount of magic to make you want more from the world its set in – it just left me with one unanswered question too many.
A copy of The Gloaming was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. 
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖 4 books out of 5

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