Local novelist, Helen Salsbury, reviews Kirby’s debut novel
What a privilege to be given a proof copy of Annie Kirby’s debut novel, The Hollow Sea, to review.
It’s a mesmerising story, permeated throughout by the sea – its rhythms, its scent, its salt, its lore – which gives voice to what it means to be childless not-by-choice. Written with consummate skill and elegant prose, its canvas is vast, as three interweaving viewpoints come together to create one compelling and emotionally rich story. It’s an exploration of identity and loss against a backdrop of societal norms: both those of an unnamed Southern England seaside town and those of the beautiful and harsh environment of the archipelago of St Hia, a place still caught up in the traditions and prejudices of an earlier age, a place where incomers may never fit.
Annie Kirby lives in Portsmouth where she works part-time as a university researcher. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a PhD in American Studies. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and broadcast on national radio and she is a winner of the Asham Award for short fiction. Annie is a graduate of the Penguin WriteNow programme.
The woman and the girl
I think of them often, the woman and the girl in the dilapidated fishing boat with a mermaid painted on the deck, fleeing monsters of some kind or another. They would have left at first light, travelling South from Bride Island, across the Hollow Sea … the greens and greys of the archipelago fading into mist behind them.
This is how the novel starts, with an ending. The Hollow Sea has a backwards narrative as the first of its three interweaving viewpoints. It’s an emotional start, and yet the emotion comes to us from the unknown narrator who tells us what she imagines. We are intrigued to know what the woman and the child mean to her and and so we’re drawn in.
Over time, the air in the room had thickened with not-quite-ghosts, will-o’-the-wisps haunting us, not from the past but from the future.
One of the things an author can sometimes do for you as a reader is to make you understand something which you’ve never quite got before. I don’t have children. And that was a decision which was partly made for me by life, but I was never sure that I was meant to be a mother. If I had been sure, I would have fought harder to become one.
But what happens if you are sure? What happens when you’ve fought as hard as you possibly can, when you’ve gone through the pain and the physical upheaval of FET and IVF, and the resultant losses, over and over again, when you finally come to the place where hope is “toxic” and “one more time, we’re almost there,” is pushing you further and further into breakdown and you just can’t handle “another failure”, just can’t carry “another ghost” in your “heart”?
Adopted child Scottie, who has grown up with no biological relatives and a sense of mystery about her long forgotten past, flees from her husband’s hope and the pressure to give it “one more try” and towards a mysterious island which, when glimpsed across the internet, triggers a sense of recognition: “the taste of sand, peaches, rain and salt”. She’s running away, but she’s also running forward, seeking to find her own roots and identity.
You take “A flight and two ferries” to get to this “remotest of remote places” and you enter another world: “a chain of islands in the Atlantic”. Each island is different, and we get a flavour of many of them. Even the names have a delightful resonance: Sorrow, Bride, Lugh (pronounced luck), St Rozel, St Mertheriana, and many more. The islands, “colonised at various times by Cornish, Scottish, Irish and Portugese,” have their own unique names, dialects, traditions and folklore. And then there’s the sea.
Scottie’s ostensible reason for visiting the islands is to take part in a seal survey. This provides plenty of sea action, marine life and island views. Kirby takes the time to examine matters of ecology, and the differing attitudes to marine life between the islanders and the ecologists, between the present and the past.
The islanders’ deep, almost fundamental, connection with the whales and seals which visit their waters is reflected in their folklore and yet also in their hunting for food. The ecologists arrive with a very different attitude, and with little knowledge of the centuries-old traditions which link the islanders and the sea-dwellers. Scottie is the only one who gets an insight into both worlds.
As Scottie’s search for identity and healing continues to take unexpected twists and turns, the past is gradually pieced together through the interlinked stories, using a mix of voices and folklore and sensory detail, while Scottie’s journey towards some form of acceptance is sensitively and heartbreakingly portrayed.
The Hollow Sea
The rhythm of the waves was different from anything I’d heard before and yet, at the same time, it reminded me of something. These were the waves that had tugged at my soul, sung to me my whole life.
‘This is the Hollow Sea,’ I whispered.” (Annie Kirby, The Hollow Sea, p.144).
The Hollow Sea itself, turbulent and unpredictable, plays a key role in Scottie’s search: at times frustrating; at times bringing things to a head.
And here, the symbolism is superb. Thematically, the Hollow Sea is so relevant to the novel’s story of childlessness and to Scottie’s conception of herself as “empty”, and yet, this is never directly stated. Instead we are met with compelling descriptions of “a stretch of water treacherous in more ways than one” (p. 3). We learn about its geology, its lore and the islander’s attitudes to it, and then, finally, perhaps inevitably, encounter it for ourselves.
I could say so much more. I could talk about the folkloric content, the “shimmering myth,” which so many other reviewers have commented on. I could mention the novel’s fellowship with Zoe Gilbert’s Folk (2018) and Susan Fletcher’s The Silver Dark Sea (2012). It’s indicative of just how rich the novel is, that there is so much more to say than I possibly have room for.
So I’ll just conclude by saying that the emotional landscape was as powerfully drawn as the actual landscape, and that when the two of them intertwined, as they frequently did, it brought a depth which resonated far beyond the novel’s final page. When the final sentences fell away I had the sense of the sea itself, settling, or the final notes of a concerto drifting down into a peaceful and perfect silence.
The Hollow Sea will be published on 18th August 2022.
Helen Salsbury’s debut novel Sometimes When I Sleep is a contemporary coming of age novel, influenced by late 18th Century Gothic literature. Helen is a short story writer, spoken word performer and community journalist, who has been longlisted for the Mslexia novel competition and shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers. Her Portsmouth-based Writing Edward King short story, ‘Persephone in Winter’, was recently republished by Fairlight Books.