Photo by Fred Riley
Having recently read a biography of George Mackay Brown I wanted to follow-up by reading one of his most celebrated novels, Greenvoe. The novel tells the tale of the last days of the tight-knit community on the Orcadian island of Hellya, a way of life that has existed unchanged for generations. This existence is destroyed by the arrival of a sinister government project — Operation Black Star.
It’s always interesting reading an author’s work after reading their biography and seeing echoes of the author’s own life. Greenvoe is full of them. The outsider in the small community, the student who takes to drink, the night in the cells and the policeman knocking on the door in the middle of the night, the young muse in the Rose Street pubs. These are all taken from GMB’s own life.
For me the book really started to come to life with the brief visit of the door-to-door salesman Dewas (Johnny) Singh who quite literally brings a splash of colour to the island. Johnny’s silks and paisley print pyjamas clash with the grey life of the village and the vests, waders and woollens of the grocery store. In his letter to his uncle he adds much-needed background detail to the lives of the principal characters.
It’s interesting that few of the characters in the novel are fleshed-out; with those that are being the ‘outsiders’. GMB paints the Minister and his mother with most detail and sensitivity: she battles with her inner demons and he battles alcoholism. Both of these were familiar to George Mackay Brown.
The story is told with beautiful, poetic, language and a concern for the environment reflecting a movement that was becoming more common around the time the book was published (1972).