Title: Call of the Undertow
Author: Linda Cracknell
Publisher: Freight Books
Year of Publication: 2013
Premise: After a traumatic event, cartographer Maggie Thame leaves her home in Oxford and relocates to the remote village of Duncanby on the coast of Scotland in an attempt to rebuild her life. In her self-imposed exile, Maggie buries herself in work and tries to keep her distance from the locals. However a chance invite to give a map making lesson at the local primary school brings her in contact with a strange and otherworldly young boy named Throthan. An unlikely friendship blossoms between the adult and child outcasts who bond over the art of cartography. But just as Maggie begins to settle into her new rural life, trouble and trauma come to haunt her even in this most isolated of places.
3 reasons I particularly enjoyed Call of the Undertow:
- Cartography – I’m not entirely sure why, but the fact of Maggie being a cartographer was immediately compelling to me. Map making was never something I was actively interested in, but I found the subject fascinating here. As Maggie helps Trothan with a school project map, we get to explore the practical process of map creation and are given a brief historical context, showing how cartographers of old would map out locations using not much more than good old-fashioned exploration and observation. This rather esoteric information always felt essential to the narrative too, as maps become Maggie’s coping mechanism to deal with her trauma and relationships. Furthermore, the way Cracknell describes Trothan’s map in particular, makes it sound like a true wonder to behold. I almost wish someone would create a facsimile of it to behold it in all it’s intricate beauty. As the novel progresses, the boy’s simple school project transforms into an elaborate piece of work that not only outlines the natural geography of his hometown, but also points out legends and myths of the land, and sheds light on information some locals have an invested interest in keeping secret.
- Subtle use of myth – While this novel has no outright fantastical elements to it, due to Maggie essentially being a stranger in a strange land, her new surroundings take on a mythic, elemental quality to them. The weather can be hostile and callous. Animals, such as the local birds and seals, are not delightful rural decoration but natural forces to look upon in awe and which can cause you physical harm. Cracknell also sprinkles references to the mythical creature known as the Selkie, a seal that assumes human form on land, to draw parallels to Trothan’s otherwordliness and explore themes of belonging.
- The setting and people of Duncanby – I really enjoyed getting to know the rural coastal village of Duncanby, becoming acquainted with its bays and cliffs and the variety of birds who have made it their home. Equally intriguing are the Duncanby residents who are as honest and unequivocal as the weather. It was refreshing to read characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves and who have a no-nonsense attitude. When characters have a problem with Maggie, she, and by proxy you the reader, know it. When they like her, they go out of their way to show her kindness. There are no ulterior motives and duplicitousness with the people of Duncanby. You’d think this would make for a much simpler novel. Instead their openness and frankness juxtaposes nicely with Maggie, who is a very reserved and guarded protagonist, giving the novel an uneasy tension as we watch how the village adjusts to Maggie, and vice versa.
A minor gripe: Aside from the cover artwork which is godawful – I seriously can’t understand what kind of readership this cover is meant to entice, such a shame given how lovely the writing is – my only minor gripe with Call of the Undertow comes at the very end. Maggie, who until this point has always been shown to be a little ill at ease around children, is suddenly very pally pally with her two young nieces. While I appreciate the need for characters to have satisfying arcs, this sudden overt change felt somewhat forced.
Read if: you enjoy quiet, simple stories that deal with grief and loss told in taut, incisive prose.
Avoid if: you like your novels to have fully resolved endings with all questions answered.