The Gracekeepers (2015) by Kirsty Logan is a post-apocalyptic novel set in an unspecified point in the future after rising sea levels have enveloped the majority of the Earth’s landmass (at least we assume it is Earth, but there’s nothing to suggest or verify this), leaving only a scattering of islands in its wake. In this new landscape dominated by water, people have become divided into two opposing groups – the somewhat privileged landlockers, who reside on the islands and have access to the earth to grow crops and raise animals, and the more transient communities of damplings, residing on boats and travelling the oceans. The two groups trade with each other, but generally treat each other with suspicion and contempt. This duality of land and sea, dampling and landlocker, dominates the novel.
The narrative focuses on two protagonists, both young women. North is a circus performer, the circus having been her home since her parents died when she was young. She travels the ocean with the ringmaster and crew of the circus boat Excalibur, taking part in the shows where she performs with her bear. On the other hand, Callanish was originally a landlocker, but after a family tragedy she left her forested island to live all alone, far out at sea, where she works as a Gracekeeper. Gracekeepers are a sort of undertaker – Callanish receives and prepares bodies for sea burial, performing the funeral ceremony and marking the mourning period. Both women carry a secret: North is pregnant, the result of a half-remembered, dream-like encounter with something from the sea (possibly an allusion to the Scottish selkies and the mythology around their encounters with human women). Meanwhile, Callanish is a child conceived from a similar encounter, born with webbed feet and hands which she must hide from those around her. The novel switches between the two characters telling the story of how they first meet and then, later, come to find one another again.
The Gracekeepers is one of those novels that is often referred to as a dystopian novel but would be more accurately described as a post-apocalyptic novel which contains elements of dystopia, much like Emily St. Mandel’s Station 11 or Will Self’s The Book of Dave. However, unlike these two novels, The Gracekeepers does not offer us a parallel narrative closer to our present that might reflect on the causes of the changed landscape (although Veryan does comment that she can’t remember winter and ‘her memories consisted only of spring and summer’, p.185). Consequently, although it could be described as a ‘climate change’ narrative, The Gracekeepers doesn’t necessarily present a critique of the causes and consequences of climate change, despite the fact that the loss of land and the rising sea is key to the identity of both landlocker and dampling communities. It does, however, consider different relationships with the environment, including the opposition between stability and uncertainty represented by land and sea.
Instead, for better or worse, the novel fully embraces the new, climate-changed world, which it describes in beautiful detail. One of the most arresting passages of the book is when Ainsel, the ringmaster’s son, takes North on a dive into the ruins of a lost city: ‘Together they tiptoed along the top of a tower and caressed the stone faces of gargoyles. Together they slid down the seawater-smoothed gutters of a church rood. Ainsel ducked into the bell tower to show North the enormous bell, whose sound had led them to city. The clapper inside was too heavy for a person to move; only a strong current could cause it to chime’ (p.156). The underwater ruins, accompanied by the sounds of whalesong, distant tidal booms, and bells, present a haunting landscape. This submerged world also further highlights the land/sea divide: while Ainsel views the ruins as something lost that must be reclaimed, North does not desire a return to land and instead embraces the changeable nature of the sea.
The central focus of this post-apocalyptic narrative is the magic of the circus. Following a group of travelling performers who pass through different communities, The Gracekeepers is similar in some ways to Station 11. Both novels are about the presence of art in the post-apocalyptic world, where culture seems to be pieced together from the ruins of the old world. The circus performers – from acrobats to clowns – and the circus tent itself are described in beautiful detail, and the acts themselves certainly feel meaningful, even if their significance for the narrative is unclear. In fact, while Logan presents beautifully-detailed descriptions of circus acts and flooded landscapes, the plot itself is a little-muddled. North’s story centres around an arranged marriage and her secret pregnancy, whereas Callanish goes on a journey back home to seek forgiveness from her mother. Although the two characters come together at the end, the two narratives didn’t really feel connected. Other elements of the novel also felt undeveloped. During their journeys, North and Callanish encounter the Revivalist religious movement and the ‘military’. These groups seemed to be the two powerhouses of this new world, striking fear into the other characters, but we actually learn little about them. Nor was there much character development of the other crew members from the circus. Only Whitby and Melia are given space in the narrative to develop, hinting at an interesting backstory and relationship we are never given further access to. Strangely, one of my favourite characters ended up being Veryan, Callanish’s mother, who despite featuring minimally in the story has perhaps the most interesting narrative voice. Finally, despite being a prominent character in his own right, the bear is left in the background. Considering his relationship with North is clearly important, it’s a shame that his role and his growing restlessness weren’t given more attention.
Overall, the ideas and description in the novel are superficially fascinating, much like a circus show, but the narrative lacks depth. In particular, there were some interesting ideas around memory and mythology that certainly felt like they could have been expanded upon. For example, we never learn anything further about the mysterious beings from the sea that impregnate Veryan and North. There also wasn’t much of a narrative plot, or, perhaps, there were several plot lines but they didn’t really come together. Consequently, The Gracekeepers was a frustrating, though still enjoyable, read.