Sixty Degrees North by Malachy Tallack – Review

"Malachy Tallack's Sixty Degrees North is a thoughtful and sophisticated blend of travelogue, nature writing, history and memoir"

Sixty Degrees North, Malachy Tallack, hardback, Polygon, £12.99
The Ecliptic, Benjamin Wood, hardback, Scribner, £14.99

I’m a big fan of modern nature writing, so it’s great to have another terrific new voice in the genre in the form of Malachy Tallack, who is a journalist, storyteller and musician as well as editor of the fantastic online magazine Island Review. His first book, Sixty Degrees North, is a dignified, thoughtful and sophisticated blend of travelogue, nature writing, history and memoir.

The author hails from Shetland and this book sees him travelling around the 60-degree line of latitude that passes through his home island, heading west through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, St Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Norway before arriving back where he started.

The book’s subtitle – Around the World in Search of Home – is apt, as Tallack explains in his introduction. Having suffered the traumatic death of his father while a teenager, Tallack was forced to move back to Shetland to live with his mother, and has felt a sense of rootlessness ever since. Never settling in one place for long, he explains that he has long wondered what ‘home’ really means, and this instinctive expedition around the frozen northern parts of the planet is an attempt to address that inner emptiness.

This instinctive expedition around the frozen northern parts of the planet is an attempt to address that inner emptiness

To the author’s credit, he doesn’t come up with glib answers. Nor does he succumb to easy clichés when describing both the landscape around him and the extent to which he feels comfortable or otherwise while interacting with both it and its inhabitants.

There is a curmudgeonly melancholy to elements of Tallack’s writing but also moments of beautiful clarity. This is especially true when the author is considering the nature of home. He evokes well the effect that landscape and location can have on people’s emotions and psyche, especially in the snowy wilderness near the Arctic, where a recalibration of the senses and sensibilities inevitably takes place.

To the people living there, of course, it’s not remote or wild at all but the centre of their universe, their home, and over the course of the book Tallack comes to realise it is his home, too.

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Our second book this week is equally thoughtful and sophisticated. The Ecliptic is Benjamin Wood’s second novel after his award-winning debut The Bellwether Revivals, and it shares with that first book an interest in the nature of human creativity and whether or not it can ever be fully understood.

The focus of the novel is Elspeth Conroy, a once-famous painter who now finds herself at Portmantle – a strange refuge for damaged artistic individuals on an island off the coast of Istanbul. Elspeth rose up from a poor background in Scotland to become a celebrated artist in 1960s London but self-doubt about her creative process eventually led to breakdown, and her life on Portmantle is changed when a young man called Fullerton arrives.

Elspeth struggles to regain clarity in her work and her life, in a subtle and evocative narrative that is deftly interwoven and wonderfully imagined. There are echoes of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries here and there in the way that The Ecliptic engages both heart and mind, and Wood has something of Donna Tartt’s skill for blending big ideas with properly tense thriller plotting.

Throw in sumptuous prose and some smart narrative sleight of hand and you have a literary novel that will surely stand the test of time.