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Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell

Variety in reading is usually my watchword, I try not to read books of a similar vein too close together, yet between Christmas and New Year I managed to read two about women running away from their existing life after life-changing events to sort themselves out. The first was The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson in which a new widow escapes London for the wide expanses of the Norfolk salt marshes, (reviewed here). Then a few days after, I read Call of the Undertow in which a woman from Oxford escapes to the expanses of cliff and sea in at Dunnet, in Caithness at the NE tip of Scotland.

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Maggie had rented ‘Flotsam Cottge’, a single-storey steading conversion on the outskirts of the village, without viewing it. On a peninsula, practically an island, at a latitude of 58º 37′ 21″N, as far north as places with ice-names like Anchorage and Stavanger, the cottage had seemed right when she found it online and she’d signed a six-month lease – a long enough horizon for her to aim for. …

‘You’re mad,’ her sister Carol said when Maggie showed her the final page of the road atlas, the expanses of black white paper, the few wiry roads and the tiny shaded areas indicating settlements. ‘Even I can read a map enough to see there’s nothing there. It’s not like you to be so remote.’ …

Maggie’s friend Helen was more polite. ‘I’ve never heard of it. Apart from that place of course.’ She poked a finger at John O’Groats, known as the most northerly point, even though the map clearly gave this role to Dunnet Head further to the west.
She bought a car, a second-hand Volvo.
‘You’re going to drive again?’ Carol’s tone now sweetened, sniffing her own agenda for Maggie of ‘getting back’ to something.
‘Easiest way to get there with my things,’ Maggie had said.
No-one tried to stop her, but she sensed the whispered conversations, the concern.

We immediately know that something had happened, serious enough that Maggie had stopped driving.  We also find out she’s now divorced from Frank. So her ties cut, Maggie sets off for the north and settles into the cottage.

Shortly after she gets there she visits the Bird Sanctuary at Dunnet Point where she meets Graham the Ranger who will become a good friend.  Whilst there, she also bumps into Year 5 from the local primary school on a trip – and their headmistress soon gets an agreement out of her to come and talk to them for their geography project about maps when she hears that Maggie is a cartographer.

It is at the school that she meets a strange young boy called Trothan, named after the ruined church nearby. Trothan is rather androgynous young boy, long-haired and quiet, yet with an intensity of gaze that causes her to falter momentarily. When she asks the class what you need to be a good cartographer, the others say Google Earth, a computer and so on – he says, ‘Your eyes‘.

The kids finish their projects, yet Trothan seems fascinated by map-making, and ere-long Maggie lets him come to the cottage to work on his own project, a multi-layered map of the whole area, annotated with mythological references and local legend, and more… They form a strong bond, the consequences of which will force Maggie to examine what she was running away from.

Despite seeming to be at the ends of the earth, there is a strong sense of community in this remote part of Scotland. Those from outside the area are generally welcomed once they prove they’re stopping – which was refreshing – they all need each other.

Trothan remains an enigma, an independent spirit at home with nature on cliff and shore – and always watching.  Maggie is encouraged by him to loosen up, and she is able to continue her freelance work beguiled by his interest.  Nora, Trothan’s mother is even harder for Maggie to get to grips with, until they find they have much in common.

Despite the outward similarities with The Widow’s Tale, this novel not being narrated by Maggie, had a very different feel to it.  Call of the Undertow is instead dominated by the beautiful but rugged landscape and a haunting sense of mystery. I enjoyed this novel a lot. (9/10)

I don’t know what I’d do if I went to Caithness, not being a golfer, bird-watcher, or even much of a rambler, but I was drawn by the feel of the place in this novel to check out that you can rent a cottage with sea views on the Castle of Mey estate where the late Queen Mother used to have picnics for £600 per week in high season, you can fly up to Wick, or train it to Thurso …

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Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell, pub Oct 2013 by Freight Books, paperback, 245 pages.