Book reviews

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn would probably never have come my way had FictionFan earlier this year not suggested a review-along of this book.

I read the blurb and was interested so trundled off to my local bookshop and ordered a copy which fittingly enough, was sent to me from England via sea mail. Disaster struck when my copy took so long to arrive that our original review date had to be delayed. By then I had begun to wonder if the container my book was in had slid off the ship into the sea during a wild storm or if the ship had been delayed in the Suez Canal when the cargo ship Ever Given got stuck and caused a traffic jam.

Eventually my long-awaited copy arrived without even a splash of sea water on it and I have to say, it was worth waiting for.

The story is set in newly-settled coastal communities of Scotland soon after the residents the characters had been evicted from their homes in the Highlands, driven out by landowners who could make more money running sheep than they could from their tenants. Some of the character’s families had immigrated to Canada in the previous years, while those who stayed behind had starved, subsisting on molluscs which they had learned to forage for on the seashore and cliffs. When the story began the men of the community were learning to go to sea to fish with the intention of selling their herring catch to new export businesses set up by their former landlords.

Fishing for herrings was a community event. All of the village’s residents saw the fishing boats off and anxiously watched for them to come back in safely to harbour. Fishing was also the only industry available to the community and right away it employed more than just the fishermen, as once the boats returned the women of the community gutted the herrings for the curers, while flirting with the fishermen. Money then circulated through the community, sustaining everyone.

The action began with a young married couple, Catrine and Tormad, physically fighting one morning because Tormad, against Catrine’s wishes, was leaving their home in Helmsdale to fish at sea in his newly-acquired boat. As a Highlander Catrine believed the sea to be full of unknown dangers, but 24-year old Tormad recognised that their future depended on their adapting to a new life and industry. He wasn’t a thrill-seeker, but he was adventurous and ambitious and as the younger boys in the community watched Tormad walk through their village to his boat, it was obvious that they wanted to grow up to be just like him.

Catrine eventually sent Tormad to sea with a dignified farewell and he and his mates on the boat were hopeful of coming home with a good catch. On the second morning of their fishing expedition it seemed as if their efforts would be rewarded when they found themselves fishing in a school of herring, ignoring an approaching English Navy ship. Disaster struck when the ship pulled up alongside them and despite Tormad fighting valiantly, forcibly took him and his crew on board before sailing away with them in a practice known as ‘press-ganging.’

When Catrine learned that Tormad had been forced into the Navy as a sailor and that he would be unable to return home for up to 20 years she was devastated. Catrine, who was pregnant, made the decision to give her and Tormad’s farm to her elder brother since he was wanting to get married and gave Tormad’s share in the fishing boat to his younger brother before leaving Helmsdale on foot to pay an extended visit to a friend many miles away in Dunster.

Catrine’s story then skipped ahead several years to find her and her young son Finn still living in Dunster with her dear friend Kirsty Mackay, who Finn called Granny Kirsty. Like Helmsdale, Dunster was also a fishing community dependent on the herring trade, and at this point in the story the list of characters expanded to include Roddie Sinclair, a Dunster fisherman with a boat and a crew of his own.

The story moved slowly through Finn’s childhood, taking turns to follow him as he grew up in Dunster, Catrine as she lived a quiet domestic life with Kirsty and Finn, and Roddie, as he fished up and down the coast with his crew for what he called ‘the silver darlings.’ When Finn was old enough he joined Roddie’s crew, had coming-of-age adventures and fell in love, and all the while Roddie was in love with Catrine, who was neither Tormad’s widow nor his wife since his whereabouts remained unknown.

I laughed and cried reading The Silver Darlings. I won’t tell you when and why I cried since that would be a spoiler, but one of the many times I laughed was when Kirsty’s cow got into the corn and her dog, Roy unhelpfully barked and ran around stirring up more trouble, causing Kristy to throw something at him, but since “long experience had taught Roy that anything thrown by a woman would hit him only if he tried to dodge,” Roy obviously stayed still and emerged unscathed.

The story is told fully, slowly and carefully, and includes many, many little details which would never make it into a modern story, but in The Silver Darlings these wonderful inclusions added to my feeling of being part of a life and a community during a time when the world moved more slowly.

It may seem obvious since the story is set during a time when was no internet, phones or mail deliveries, but part of the joy of the story for me was reading the full, unhurried conversations which were held in person. Characters told their stories to groups of listeners who prompted the storyteller to include all of the particulars, from how they were feeling to what they saw and smelled and heard and touched, when the events where taking place and why, and they chastised the storyteller if they felt any detail, no matter how big or small was skipped over or left out.

The language is as descriptive as the character’s narratives, but neither were ever long-winded. The characters weren’t well-educated in a modern sense but they were articulate, unafraid of their emotions and told their stories well. Occasionally they made fools of themselves and at other times they were heroic. At all times they were completely believable and true.

The story and setting may have resonated with me because my father and his family loved to fish. Dad often said that my grandfather’s view of life was that the world was three-quarters ocean and one-quarter land and that people would do well to spend their time accordingly. A family day out for them was often spent fishing at sea or up the river in their boat.

Dad fished all of his life and loved feeding his family and friends with his catch. In later life he usually fished with friends, either at sea or up a river in a boat, or at other times sitting on a chair on a river’s edge or standing on a sandy beach. During summer he went crayfishing off the rocks and in winter, he caught eels in the river. When the moon was right when we lived in a warmer place, he went prawning.

One of my earliest memories was fishing on the side of the river with my grandmother early one morning when I fell asleep and a fish took my rod. I woke up because Nan was screeching, but luckily another fisherman waded out into the river and retrieved my rod, minus the fish.

The Silver Darlings gave me the feeling of having been living in another time and place while I’d been reading. It’s a long time since I’ve felt so emotionally connected to a book and I’m going to miss the characters, Dunster, the sea and the story itself now that I’ve finished it. Many thanks to FictionFan for recommending this book.

You can read FictionFan’s review of The Silver Darlings here:

Sandra from A Corner of Cornwall also took part in the review-along of The Silver Darlings and has made several excellent points which I wish I’d thought of myself. You can read Sandra’s review here:

Comments on: "The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn" (25)

  1. Lovely review, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it so much! (It would have been awful if you’d hated it after waiting for it for so long!) I struggled a bit more with the slowness than you, though perhaps that’s because I was already familiar with some of what he was telling. But I loved the sea adventures, and the cholera section, and like you I really enjoyed the picture he gives of how the old tradition of oral storytelling was kept alive. I was a bit surprised there wasn’t more anger about the Clearances in it, although I felt it worked well without it – Scottish anger over the Clearances does get a bit wearing after a while! And I liked that he showed that the men actually found that their lives were better financially – the grinding poverty of the crofters being something else we don’t often admit when talking about the Clearances. I’m looking forward to hearing what the others think – hopefully they both enjoyed it too. πŸ˜€

    • Yes, I can imagine you wanting more action in the plot. Since this is a sliver of your country’s history and already very well known to you this makes sense.
      I didn’t get any sense of anger about the Clearances at all, and came to this story without ever knowing about them. Catrine’s fear of the sea and her homesickness for her beloved Highlands certainly came through, though. I felt that when the story begun most of the characters had accepted the changes to their lives and were hopeful of a better future.
      I’m looking forward to learning what the others thought too, and am hoping they loved the story as much as I did. There is a lot of pleasure in knowing other people love a book when I do!

      • Yes, indeed, and we’ve been quite lucky so far in all feeling similarly about the books we’ve read – no wars so far!

        • It’s interesting to read reviews on the same book by people who have come from different countries, life experiences etc, but I imagine that even if there were differences in the reviewers values, there is always something to appreciate in a good book.

          • Yes, I wondered while reading if there was enough background information for you and Christine to understand about the Clearances – I felt there was, so I’m glad you both found that to be the case. I love learning about other countries through fiction, especially when it’s done as well as this.

          • I’d much rather learn something through fiction than having to learn numbers, dates and names by rote!

  2. This sounds wonderful and I’ve never heard of it or Neil M Gunn, I’ll have to put that right! Isn’t it fabulous that it came to you by sea?!

    • I doubt I would ever have heard of Neil M Gunn or this book had FictionFan not suggested it either. He was quite prolific, so I’m hoping to come across more of his books in future, although suspect I’ll need to order them as they aren’t well known in Australia.
      Anything we’re not in a hurry for here comes by sea!

  3. How wonderful, that the setting brought back memories from your own childhood. I love when that happens. Personally, I’ve never even tried fishing and I still haven’t reached the stage, where I can prepare and cook a whole fish. πŸ™„ Anyway, it sounds like a good story and even if I’ve read about the Clearances before, it probably wouldn’t do any harm, if I learned a bit more. πŸ™‚

    • It is a joy when a book reminds you of a happy memory. I wish it happened to me more!
      I don’t care for fishing either, although I love to eat fish and seafood and happily cook it.
      I came to The Silver Darlings knowing nothing at all about the Clearances and found this a gentle way to learn about them. Had the story started several years before it did, it would have to have shown the misery of people being forced from their homes, making decisions about where to go and what to do next and the starvation of those who went to the coastal villages, but the point when it started was past that.

  4. This sounds lovely and the history is very appealing to me too. I’ve lived my whole life on the water and though I don’t have much fishing experience, the ocean has always been a part of my life.

    • The Silver Darlings is a lovely book. I don’t particularly care for fishing either but it was a big part of my own family’s story.
      I imagine that you would be homesick for the ocean if ever you decided to try living inland. Melbourne is on a bay, which is not the same as living on the open sea. I grew up on the Great Ocean Road and my great hope is to live nearer the open sea again in future, but for now, Melbourne it is.

  5. I enjoyed the review. It sounds like the author did a wonderful job of conveying just how resilence human beings can be.
    Amazing how ruthless those Scottish/English landlords were, isn’t it? Many of those displaced Scots also headed for colonial North America, primarily North Carolina.

    • The characters were enormously resilient but it was a trait that was taken for granted by all of them. Happily for these characters taking on the fishing industry has a great success.
      When I was reading this I wondered if the landlords were greedy for more or if they were also struggling financially, but suspect their motivation was greed. I’ll read more about this as am interested.
      I believe a great many Scottish people ended up in New Zealand around this time.

  6. Rose, I loved this book as much as you did and I’m very glad your copy was delayed or I would not have been able to read it! Interesting that you found a personal connection to it through fishing just as I found the same through my sister. (See my review now posted – I’ve actually written one!) But I would have loved this book anyway. I loved Gunn’s writing, his descriptive powers and his characters. I picked up in your comment to FF that it put you in mind of The Tree of Man. I still think a lot about that book and that doesn’t happen with most books I read. I wonder if I would react differently to White’s book had I read Gunn’s first. We’ll never know! So glad to have been a part of this review-along 😊

    • I’ve just read your review, Sandra, and was so happy to see that you had taken part and loved the book too!
      I was thinking of you when I commented that The Silver Darlings reminded me of The Tree of Man since both tell the story of life over longer periods, rather than a specific adventure, and wondering if you had forgiven me yet for recommending Tree, since you didn’t particularly enjoy it!

  7. In reply to your wondering about the landlords, it was a mix – a few were just greedy, but a lot were bankrupt or near enough, and it was in fact their Edinburgh agents who made the decision to convert the land to sheep farming, partly because under the law they had an obligation to return the estates to profit, so their hands were tied. Some of the landlords did what they could to mitigate the effects, for example, by funding fishing boats or paying for people’s passage to the New World. If you’re interested in reading more, Peter May’s Entry Island is brilliant, and shows the real cruelty that happened to some of the crofters, and the enforced emigration some went through.

    • It sounds like an impossible situation for the crofters who were subsisting, bankrupt landlords (I’ll ignore the greedy ones for the purposes of this point) and agents whose role it was to make money for their employer. A cruel situation, and no doubt some cruel people too.
      I am interested, and Peter May’s Entry Island is available at my library.

  8. Rose, believe or not I still want to post something about Tree of Man. I wish I could read it again to be honest; I’d almost certainly get more from it. But that isn’t going to happen – too many books and too little time! I’m so pleased that we both loved this one though!

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