If the past is a foreign country, then Margaret Duthie Tulloch (‘Meggie’) is a traveller from a distant land. Indeed the narrator of Amanda Curtin’s splendid novel Elemental has led a life unimaginably different from the woman to whom her story is addressed. That woman is Meggie’s granddaughter, Laura, who in a hundred-page ‘Coda’ at the end of the book (an enveloping second narrative) describes her ‘Grunnie’s’ manuscript thus: ‘Recollections, almost like a long, long letter. Written in the years before she died. Her childhood, mostly, what I’ve read so far. Grim.’

Grim is the word. Born in 1891 in a fishing village in northeast Scotland (‘at the top of the world … closer to Norway than London’), Meggie has the kind of childhood to which even Monty Python’s Northerners (‘You were looky!’) would doff their flat caps. The youngest of five children, three of them boys, she is raised in a two-room cottage (or ‘but-and-ben’), which spare and overcrowded environment serves as an unimprovable metaphor for the suffocating ambience of the life of the village more generally. For Roanhaven is a joyless place – a place where briny superstitions and an austere branch of Christianity combine to produce an atmosphere of existential resignation and dread, and in which every man of working age is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, which lead directly to ‘the boatie shore’. As for the women: they stay in the village, look after the men too old to fish, prepare and attempt to barter the catch, and keep one tired eye on the children. If ever they get a spare moment, they knit.

Set against this dreary backdrop, Meggie is something of a splash of colour. Literally, in fact, for Meggie is a redhead, and redheads are rare in Roanhaven. The locals regard her as a creature of ill omen (a ‘throwback from some ancient Pictish kin’) and it’s fair to say that the feeling is mutual. Inspired by her feisty sister, Kitta, Meggie resolves to escape the village and the fate of its women as soon as she can. The arrival of the herring boats – the beginning of the end for traditional village fishing – is thus, for Meggie, a happy development, allowing her as it does to take a job as a ‘gutting girl’ for a firm of curers. Here, she discovers both friendship and love – the latter in the shape of Magnus Tulloch, a ‘cooper boy’ employed by the firm – though tragedy soon intrudes itself and drives her further still from Roanhaven.

The rest of Meggie’s life is spent in Australia, to which she moves in 1910. Swapping the North Sea for the Indian Ocean, and her gutting knife for a piping bag, she takes a job in a biscuit factory in Fremantle. Unfortunately, tragedy, too, has booked a passage, and clings to Meggie – and to Magnus – like lichen. The effects of an old accident, and the shock of a fresh one, combine with war, depression and flu to make their lives very nearly unbearable.

Not that Meggie would describe it thus, or at any rate not without qualification. Coming as she does from a time and a place in which women are (literally) beasts of burden – required to lug the creel of fish around the freezing countryside and to carry the fishermen out to the boats in order to keep their sea-boots dry (hardships to which the ‘mess and muck’ of the gutting yard come as a relief) – Meggie regards such words with suspicion. ‘[H]ow could I say the word unbearable to Ma’, she asks, upon leaving Roanhaven, ‘while she had no choice but to stay and bear everything?’

Elemental would be a gruelling read were it not for the beauty of Curtin’s prose. Assonantal and alliterative, and peppered with Scots and Doric vocabulary (‘quinies’ for girls, ‘loons’ for boys), Meggie’s voice is both poetic and convincing, while a gentle metaphorical undertow invites the reader to make connections that may not be immediately apparent. (Each section of the novel is named for an element: ‘Water’, ‘Air’, ‘Earth’ and ‘Fire’.) The novel is also structurally impressive, yielding its secrets gradually. The fate of a boy called Brukie’s Sandy – a fate Meggie sees as linked to her own in some crucial and yet indefinable way – is vouchsafed to the reader in tantalising fragments and is all the more affecting as a result.

In a sense, Elemental is an emotional thriller in which the reader plays the role of detective – a role that involves, not looking for clues, but drawing connections between states of mind. This can be an exhausting experience, but it’s also a rewarding one. And it reminds us what real exhaustion is.

Amanda Curtin, Elemental
UWA Publishing; $29.99; 436pp


First published in The Australian.