Book Review by Fiona Grahame
“The whole thing’s coming round again,” he muttered. “It’s as if we’re living upon a wheel. As if the whole Earth is felloed with madness and death.”
How do any of us cope or deal with bereavement and trauma ? the scarring sense of loss which we can push aside in its immediate impact only to have it re -emerge stronger than ever years, perhaps even a generation later.
‘As the Women Lay Dreaming’, a novel by Donald S. Murray tells the story of not just the grief of one person but the trauma of an island community when the Iolaire floundered on the rocks on New Year’s Day 1919 taking servicemen home to Lewis having survived the slaughter of World War 1.
At the start of World War 1 the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides had a population of less than 30,000. 6,500 of its men served in the forces, many as Royal Naval Reservists. Of that number 1,151 were never to return home.It was the highest proportion of men killed of any community. Others were to return wounded, physically and mentally.
A community already heaving with grief was to experience more in the most cruel way possible when joyous servicemen having survived the war were to lose their lives so close to home – 174 men from Lewis and 7 from Harris drowned that day within sight of Stornoway Harbour Lights.
It hit the islanders with such a force that it was not talked about until recently.
Donald S. Murray explores the themes of grief and trauma in this novel where three generations of individuals experience the sudden loss of loved ones.
Tormond, the grandfather: the loss of his first wife Morag,taken from him in childbirth and their one child, Mairi, dying of TB in a tenement in Glasgow far from her Stornoway home. Mairi who left 2 young children, Alasdair and Rachel too young to understand their own grief or that of their father, George, who drank to obliterate both it and his own shortcomings.
Tormond’s second wife, a young widow, Catriona, has to also overcome the grief of leaving her son with his grandparents to rarely ever see or hear of him in a village elsewhere in Lewis.
“The heavy layers of clothing wrapped around her thin, frail frame appeared to make her shake – her long blustering skirt, thick black coat, the dark shawl wrapped around her head, all trembling in the breeze. It was as if she was a stalk of grass wavering in the wind, barely upright in the storms that life had sent to whirl around her.”
There is the loss too of Tormond’s brother Calum, deprived of his physical virility by taking ill not long after enlisting and lying in damp cold blankets. Loss too of the mind, Tormond’s sister, Christina, taken in a straitjacket to an Inverness asylum.
The novel expresses much more than this. The lilt and rhythm of the language captures the soft accents and Gaelic of the islanders. The beauty of the land and how unforgiving it can be for those seeking to farm or fish from its shores. A land gripped by Presbyterianism which constricts feelings and buries emotions but which also for some is the only rock left for them to cling to.
The women left: – mothers, sister, wives in a community where grief is not expressed openly but which is haunted by women shrouded in shawls and memories.
There’s the life of Lewis too which all islanders can identify with, particularly the closeness of the community before the war.
In his reading of the novel at Orkney Library on Thursday 10th of October, Donald Murray described how the tragedy did not bring people closer together. If anything it drove apart those who had survived and those who had lost so much.
“The notion,” he said “that after a tragedy that everyone becomes united is a myth.” Those that managed to get to the shore on New Years Day 1917 have the guilt of having been the ones to have survived where so many – perhaps better men than they – good men – had died.
The novel describes the sinking of the Iolaire and perhaps, because I am researching the lives of the men who died when HMS Pheasant sank off the coast of Hoy, Orkney in 1917, I found that passage very difficult to read. The 89 men who were killed on the Pheasant left family bereaved some still posting memorial notices in their local newspaper decades after. Others were forgotten within a generation – the poor leave little trace in history.
Don’t be thinking that this is a novel which is deeply depressing – quite the contrary. Donald Murray’s skill as a writer is that although death affects every character and the community itself, the deep underlying theme is the force of Life. As the older Alasdair says of his grandparents on Lewis:
“They provided me with a sense of decency, this ability to sketch and draw and see the world in both its full horrors and delights, which, – for many years of my life – helped me earn a living.”
As the Women Lay Dreaming : a novel of the Iolaire Disaster by Donald S. Murray is published by Saraband.
This year I visited Stornoway and was able to view the exhibition at Lews Castle Museum about The Iolaire Disaster
And the Art Installation on the shoreline of Stornoway Harbour.
Although the Iolaire was just over 100 years ago and islanders may now be able to talk about it in a way they couldn’t before, it will be forever present.