Book Review by Monika Armet
Astrid is returning home from art school on Mars, looking for inspiration. Darling is fleeing a life that never fit, searching for somewhere to hide. They meet on Deep Wheel Orcadia, a distant space station struggling for survival as the pace of change threatens to leave the community behind.
Deep Wheel Orcadia is a magical first: a science-fiction verse-novel written in the Orkney dialect. This unique adventure in minority language poetry comes with a parallel translation into playful and vivid English, so the reader will miss no nuance of the original. The rich and varied cast weaves a compelling, lyric and effortlessly readable story around place and belonging, work and economy, generation and gender politics, love and desire – all with the lightness of touch, fluency and musicality one might expect of one the most talented poets to have emerged from Scotland in recent years. Hailing from Orkney, Harry Josephine Giles is widely known as a fine poet and spellbindingly original performer of their own work; Deep Wheel Orcadia now strikes out into audacious new space.
MY REVIEW ⭐⭐⭐
‘Deep Wheel Orcadia’ is a first book written in Orkney dialect (or Orcadian) in over fifty years. However, please do not feel discouraged by this notion, as there is a translation provided. As a person living in Orkney (but not coming from Orkney), I was grateful for the translation, but as I got into the swing of reading the original, I felt I needed the translation less and less.
‘Deep Wheel Orcadia’ is a set of linked poems, which read more like a prose, each telling a story of a particular character from the book. There are many characters to get to grips with, and I found myself reverting to the list of people, or ‘The Fock’ quite often, especially at the beginning. They share in common that they all reside in Deep Wheel Orcadia – a Northern space station closest to the galactic centre, and they are all facing adversity.
The book is split into three parts, and in the first one, there is a clear portrayal of a struggling community: people working to make ends meet and food being scarce, while on the other hand, some searching for their identity and their place in the world.
The reader meets Astrid, who left Orcadia for Mars eight years previously to study Art and is now back in search for inspiration for her artwork. She meets a newcomer from Mars, Darling, who is described as ‘taall’ and ‘pael’ with ‘reid hair’ (tall and pale with red hair). Eventually the two women meet and spend the night together. In amongst all this, people begin to notice a strange apparition of an older man wearing a helmet (perhaps a soldier?) whose face is contorted in a silent shriek. What does it mean? Is the community in danger?
As I was reading the book, I noticed parallels between the Orcadia and Orkney as it is now. Giles portrays a tight knit community, where news spread quickly and where people are working in the boat and food industry. It rings true, as Orkney relies on their farming and fishing trade. Plus, we do like to ‘ken’ (know) what’s going on around us. That is what makes Orkney unique.
Furthermore, Giles writes that energy in Deep Wheel Orcadia is expensive, even though it’s produced there. I immediately thought of fuel poverty and its shocking high levels in Orkney: we produce 120% of our energy needs through renewables, and yet many have to choose between ‘eating or heating’ (source: The Orkney News). Another parallel I discovered was slow internet speed in Giles’ Orcadia – also very true for Orkney.
Another similarity is the ‘Harvest Home’ dance. In Deep Wheel Orcadia, we see the characters preparing for it, practising the steps beforehand, and there is a sense of community spirit. This was probably my favourite poem in the book, and it’s its longest, standing at 15 pages long. In the past, Harvest Home was a huge event, celebrating the end of harvest. The tradition was to have a meal first, followed by music and dancing (source: The Orkney News). It is still celebrated today, however on a smaller scale, as many events are cancelled because of low numbers of participants.
Overall, this is a beautifully written book. I loved the poetic nature of its verses. Saying that, I felt there were far too many characters to form a connection with any of them – maybe that was the purpose, but for me, when I am reading a story, I like to feel some sort of emotional inkling. Also, the book doesn’t really have a proper ending. Again, that also could have been done purposely, but I felt as if the characters were just abandoned somewhere in space, circling the orbit.
The book was published by Picador on 14/10/21 and you can purchase it from your favourite retailers. Many thanks to Fiona Grahame from The Orkney News for gifting me this copy in exchange for an honest review.
You can visit my blog: monikareads.wordpress.com, where I regularly post book reviews.
If you are interested in finding out more about renewables and fuel poverty in Orkney, you can find out more here: https://theorkneynews.scot/2021/06/29/orkney-120-renewables-energy-production-the-highest-rates-of-fuel-poverty/
For more information on the history of the ‘Harvest Home’, you can read more here: https://theorkneynews.scot/2020/12/08/the-harvest-home/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Harry Josephine Giles is a writer and performer from Orkney, living in Edinburgh. Their collection ‘Tonguit’ was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and The Games for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and Saltire Prize for Best Collection. They have a strong spoken word scene presence – they were the 2009 BBC Scotland slam champion, and their theatre has also toured globally, including Forest Fringe (UK), NTI (Latvia), Verb Festival (Aotearoa) and Teszt (Romania).
#DeepWheelOrcadia Twitter: @HJosephineGiles and @picadorbooks