It was June 2020. Covid-19 lockdown was at its peak. Everyone was restless and the monsoon heat and humidity was at its peak. Holiday plans had been cancelled and the only way for me to survive the lockdown was to binge watch a series or indulge in some book retail therapy. I obviously preferred the latter. On Lonely Planet’s recommendation, I went ahead and purchased 8 books to help me ease out the travel blues. The Valley at The Centre of the World was one of them. It was the third book that I picked out to read after Flights by Olga Tocarzcuk and Petersburg by Andrei Bely.
Flights and Petersburg were both interesting but complicated reads. For starters, they were translated works. So before starting The Valley at The Centre of the World I had schooled myself to be patient and to take my time with it. From the very first few pages, I was transported to the beautiful island of Shetland, located between Norway and mainland Scotland. It is an archipelago made up of around 100 different islands. The author, Malachy Tallack, is a Shetland-er and native to the region he so beautifully describes in his book. Contrary to my assumptions, this book was the complete opposite of a complicated read.
I really enjoyed the slow place of the book. I had loaded my brain with heavy classics and non-fiction TBR’s and I didn’t realise I was craving a book to settle in to with a nice mug of coffee. The Valley does exactly that. Storytelling these days has been hyped up to be all about the thrill and the plot. The pressure to capture the reader’s attention and keep her entertained is too high. I’ve often seen that this leads to authors desperately trying to build a momentum to their 300+ page novel only to serve the climax as a lukewarm disappointment. With The Valley there was no pressure to do this. Tallack writes confidently. There is no expectation of a dramatic ending, only a reassurance of a soothing and a heart warming story.
The Valley is a story of the people of a land. It is a story of continuity and starting afresh, of finding new connections and revisiting old ones. It is about a dying community who is desperately trying to hold on to that what remains. David has lived in the valley all his life, just like his father and grandfather before him. With Maggie, another resident of the valley gone, he is the last surviving member of the community who was born and raised in the valley. His daughters have moved to the city and he worries that no young families will take over the chain of stories and care that the valley has always needed. On the flip side, outsiders have made the place their own. Alex, a young widow, moved to the valley after the death of her husband and has immersed herself in a writing project. Sandy, a newcomer and David’s daughter’s ex-boyfriend has found his peace in crofting. What makes these strangers take to this place of sheep, soil and the harsh weather? What makes anyone find home away from home? And when you’ve found that familiar connection in a distant land, do you give up your relation with the past?
“Life would be so much simpler, if people dreamed only of one place”
On a side note – to get a better understanding of the region and the dialect, I began watching Shetland, a TV series on Netflix. It is in no way connected to the book or the story and was only for me to get a lay of the land. (I do this often. While reading a book where the theme or region is new, I try and find a similar themed series or movie to get a better understanding of the written word. This is the only time I turn to the motion picture) I highly recommend watching at least the first episode – the countryside is stunning! It’ll make you appreciate the book even more.
For an even more holistic experience, check out Tallack’s songs on YouTube. He is a Scottish singer-songwriter and has 3 successful albums under his belt. My current favourite is Leaving My Old Self Behind.
The Valley at the Centre of The World by Malachy Tallack will envelop you with a warm, fuzzy feeling. I only wish I was reading this book on my way to Shetland and the valley. I can imagine catching a glimpse of Mary at the local (and the only one) grocery store in town as she collects the ingredients she needs to whip up David’s special meal. Very rarely do I think of the characters long after I’ve finished a book. But David and Mary will remain in my mind for sometime.