Beside the Ocean of Time Paperback – 7 Aug 1995
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From the Back Cover
Thorfinn, a crofter's son living on the remote island of Norday, is a dreamy boy ; 'idle and useless' according to his teachers. Bored by school, happier wandering the shores of his island home, he escapes into the limitless world of his imagination. Closing his eyes in the 1930s he dreams of crossing the 'fish-fraught' ocean with Viking raiders. Falling asleep to the monotonous tones of a history lesson he finds himself running from the press gang into the arms of a beautiful seal-maiden who longs to return to the sea. War and adventure, the struggles of great men and the everyday toil of the fisherfolk, Thorfinn dreams the sweep of Norday's history, its life and its inevitable death…
"His finest novel yet: we are reading this author at the height of his powers."
"The great ocean of time has been more widely sailed and more deeply trawled by George Mackay Brown than by any other writer in Scottish literature. Rich in poetry, emblazoned with marvellous imagery…a millennial reach in which every heron and seal is the embodiment of all its predecessors, every fisherman a descendant of those who harvested the same waters before him."
"…mythic stories that affirm the human spirit, clad in a prose of sinuous beauty. George Mackay Brown remains one of our truly inimitable novelists."
"…richness and colour, wonderful prose and imagery, and through it all you breathe the peat smoke of the croft, the wip of the wind which beats up the spray of the northern seas. A Mackay Brown novel is an event to be savoured, to be read over and over again for its subtleties. It is a joy."
EDINBURGH EVENING NEWS
About the Author
George Mackay Brown is one of the major Scottish literary figures of the twentieth century. A prolific poet and novelist, he took much of his inspiration from the myths and landscape of Orkney, and also from his deep Catholic faith. His collection of short stories A Time to Keep (1971) won the Katherine Mansfield Mentor short story prize and his novel Beside the Ocean of Time was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994. He died in 1996. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
His writing is more lyrical than that of Neil Gunn, but like that great storyteller of Caithness, he succeeded admirably in capturing the atmosphere of northern Scotland, awakening a sense of its long history and opening the minds of its people.
I cannot help comparing this book with Gunn's "Morning Tide", because both works centre on the life of a young boy in the early years of this century, but the two books are different, for, while Gunn creates a convincing character and tells his story, Brown's Thorfinn somehow does not come alive in the same way. He is more of a literary device, a pivotal awareness, through whose reveries we explore the island landscape and come to meet the adult inhabitants. There is, of course, another difference. While Gunn is always conscious of his country's history and culture, the present is what matters; Brown, in this book at least, leads us constantly out of the present and into the more distant past. It is only in the concluding pages that we move into the twentieth century and Thorfinn begins to emerge as a real person.
As I began reading the book and became aware of Brown's simple language and the magical atmosphere of time-travel, I actually wondered whether it was really for children, but his simplicity of style is a means by which he represents the mind of a young child and makes the novel accessible to a very wide public. This is a work of great charm which will appeal to readers of almost any age.
Having enjoyed but simultaneously been utterly confused by a previous title written by the same author, I felt compelled to read more of his work, to see if I'd failed to understand his intentions, or whether his work just wasn't my cup of tea. Happily, the former seems to have been the case as I found this book made perfect sense, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Thorfinn, the protagonist, travels through time via dreams and daydreams, thereby sharing with the reader the history and mythology of the Orkneys. The island portrayed in the book is, in fact, imaginary but presumably acts as a substitute for any of the other islands.
Having visited and fallen in love with the Highlands, I adore reading about Scottish history. I also find Scottish mythology the most believable or reasonable so am often drawn to books incorporating it into modern tales. This book didn't disappoint in either area. As an Orcadian, Mackay Brown obviously knows the islands well and does an impressive job of bringing Norday to life.
Mackay Brown's uniquely-styled prose is conversational yet poetic. He animates people and places with such ease that one is entirely captivated, to the extent of forgetting one is reading at all; the reader is drawn into a dream-like state in which time passes almost imperceptibly.
I read this short novel in little over two hours and will almost certainly return to it again. I imagine there is much metaphorical profundity hidden within its pages that will become apparent with closer attention to detail.
The only thing the story lacked, for me, was a recognisable plot. However, it was still an enjoyable read, and I may feel differently about that after a second read.
As with all GMB's work the language is remarkably simple and yet deeply symbolic. Shortlisted for the Booker prize, this work speaks as perfectly and poetically of our green islands as it does of the nature of man and his place in the universe.
This is the work of a truly great poet. Read it!
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