Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell

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Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Tragedy drives cartographer Maggie Thame to seek solace in the remotest place in Britain, the far northern coasts of Scotland. There an unexpected friendship with an odd local child changes both of their lives. Beautiful, haunting and highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 245 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Freight Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781908754301

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If you read a lot of books, then the fact of your life is that you are always part-way through at least one of them. You read all of the time. Over breakfast, in the bath, waiting for trains, on trains, between trains. You make a cup of tea in order to have an excuse to sit-and-read for half an hour. But even so, most of your reading is done in stolen moments – often in moments when a nagging voice from the gremlin-centre of your brain is reminding you that you should be doing something else.

Every so often, though, you will stumble across a book that changes that. The universe gifts you a book the reading of which becomes more important than anything else you could be doing at that moment. This is something different to the typical page-turner that through its suspense or intrigue hooks your curiosity so severely that you're reluctant to wait for the next episode. This is a reality that snares you so completely that for a few hours, it's the rest of the world that is shelved.

Such a book is Call of the Undertow.

I'd committed to prioritising a different read, but serendipity had this one arrive on my doorstep first and have it do so when I was between books. Well, I'll just read the first chapter or so – and then come back to it. It didn't work out that way. I'd have read it in a sitting if I didn't need to sleep or have a day-job. So it took two sittings, two missed dinners, and a slew of unattended intentions.

Maggie Thame is a cartographer. She has left a life in Oxford, swapped the city for a lonely cottage outside a tiny village in the far north of Scotland, swapped a boss for a commissioning editor. She still needs to work, but clearly she also needs to be away from people. Her sister thinks she's mad. Her best friend was more polite. As for her ex-husband: he knows. No-one actively tried to stop her. Gentle persuasion foundered on the obvious fact that time alone was not working, so she was allowed to run away.

About a month after she arrives, a snowman appears in her garden. Rolled tracks show where the snow has been scooped, but there are no footprints to give away the sculptor. Remoteness gets to even those who deliberately seek it out, and Maggie is unnerved by the event.

But it provokes a passing conversation with her landlady… the first step into the community.

Winter starts to give way to Spring and the explorer side of our recluse takes over. As she starts to expand her walks to wider circles from her cottage she comes into contact with more and more of the locals. One of these passing encounters hoodwinks her into giving a talk about her work at the local primary school. Primary 5 are meeting their local studies requirement through a local map-making project. Maggie is soon universally known as the map lady, though no-one knows, nor would understand, that her current project has nothing to do with local contours and everything to do with population change in Lagos.

One child in particular, a strange, lonesome, long-haired creature called Trothan seems to have a gift for the art. Art. His map-making is much more art than science, but none the less accurate as a result. Maggie is intrigued and against her better judgement a strong friendship grows up between them.

As the blurb tells you Cracknell explores themes of motherhood, guilt, myth and the elemental forces of nature but it is the last of those that will keep you reading and reading.

Trothan is a mysterious child with a hidden background, and we only slowly discover the tragedy that Maggie struggles to accept, but it was the haunting descriptions of hard lives lived on far-flung corner, this peninsular that is almost an island, with nothing between it and the Arctic, that kept me entranced.

In such places the myths are still very much present, but they crash like storm-surf against the modern realities of fishing quotas and sand-theft. The lyrical beauty of the wild remote coast is allowed to spin its web, until it splinters against attacking terns who'll not allow human risk to their nests, or a seal corpse rotting and foul-smelling on the beach.

Call of the Undertow is a book in which very little happens. The key events have happened before its start and we're left to wonder about what will follow its end. In between we have six months of two very different people seeking something… in a community that looks on with a strange mixture of concern and disinterest… hiding, and seeking, and the drawing of maps.

What will draw you in and hold you there is the place itself. If you've ever been up to Dunnett Head, or even to the coastal reaches north of Wick, and heard the seals crying from the sandbanks, if you've seen the history-wracked remains of Helmsdale and the echoes of the past that haunt the empty places and forgotten villages of the north, then this is the book to make you want to go back. If you haven't, no travel guide could entice you as much as this tale of a search for redemption.

Highly recommended.

For some of the background to Cracknell's location, you might enjoy Breaking the Spell: Stories of Magic and Mystery from Scotland by Lari Don and Cate James. For more lyrical descriptions of life in the north, even further north, I'd recommend Tove Jannson and he True Deceiver would be no bad place to start.

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Buy Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell at

Booklists.jpg Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2013.


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