Friday, 3 October 2008

Beside the Ocean of Time - George McKay Brown

7.5 out of 10

Beside the Ocean of Time is one of the most beguiling books you are likely to read. Like the thick, rolling ocean beside which it is set, this is a book which will sweep you up in its swell and carry you away to great battles and exciting adventures without you ever realising you have left the comfort of your armchair. You may not grasp how much you love it, but you are thoroughly, wonderfully, engrossed.

It is the early 20th Century and life has changed very little on the small Orkney island of Norday for hundreds of years. The same families do the same jobs they always have, as fishermen, and farmers, and craftsmen; the men drink in the one pub, the woman wish they wasted less money on alcohol, they all shop together at the only shop on the island.

But Thorfinn Ragnarson, a young boy growing up on the island, does not quite fit in. He is an idle daydreamer, so much so that the book opens with this immortal sentence, “Of all the lazy useless boys who ever went to Norday school, the laziest and most useless was Thorfinn Ragnarson.” He has no interest in taking over the family business, nor settling down to the simple life of the island. Instead, he spends his days recreating great battles and grand adventures from the island’s lore. Through his hungry eyes we travel through time to meet with invading forces landing on the shores, threatened islanders hiding in a narrow keep, soldiers fighting against the English king and country. And Thorfinn is in all of these, ever present in the story of the island.

But the present is a time of cataclysmic upheavals in the world, and not even the people of Norday can hope to escape its transformations. War is coming, and the tranquil island will never be the same again.

Beside the Ocean of Time is a beautiful, simple tale of island life and those who inhabit it. It is a rewarding and lyrical read, packed full of mythology and adventure, and a healthy dollop of magical realist seal people to boot! Books this simple leave me thoroughly in awe, you can hear the wind howling through the thin walls and the rain pelting the land; you can feel the sea whip wildly against the shore, and the history hang amid the mist hovering over the island. It is not bleak – no, far from it! – Beside the Ocean of Time is rich and powerful and enthralling. Just buy it, I cannot imagine anyone not being won over to its simple, dreamy, story.

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