Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Still Point by Amy Sackville

“I will reach it,” Edward Mackley tells his new bride; “I will wait,” she replies. He doesn't; she does.

I know Amy Sackville. She was in my class at Goldsmith's and it was clear, right from the start, that she was working on something that was in a different class from the rest of us. I remember very clearly reading the passage depicting Edward Mackley's death for workshop, moved almost to tears by the horror of it. I didn't know what to say: “Don't change a word.”

Amy was quickly snapped up by an agent and found a publisher. The Still Point was adapted for Book At Bedtime on Radio Four, and part of the long-list for the Orange Prize. It's the sort of thing we all dreamed of happening, and there's something magical about seeing someone I know with genuine talent getting recognised after half a lifetime backing beautiful losers. In this case I have the added pleasure of congratulating myself for spotting it early on.

I'd only seen it in bits before, so reading the whole thing, and seeing for the first time how it all fits together, it's even more impressive. I hadn't read much of the modern story of Julia and Simon, and I see now how this part of the novel provides resolution to the old wounds of the Mackleys. The interplay of these stories enlarges them both. There are secrets to come out, and an enduring legacy of loss that reaches out across the century that separates the two stories. In isolation the passages are clever, moving, musical but seeing how it all comes together, reading all the connecting elements I hadn't seen before, I love it even more.

Edward Mackley turns back from the pole, but never gives up on life, even when all hope is lost. “I can't go on without”, Emily writes a single unfinished sentence in the notebook he gave her before he left, unable to finish the phrase, as if by finishing it she'll finish herself. It's a very British sort of failure, the unsuccessful Polar explorer who might be a footnote in some volume of exploration, the precursor to some else's more heroic tale, but here we look at the consequences of ambition gone unrewarded.

When do you stop? When do you give up? What do you do when all hope is gone? A friend asked me once “How can you sit there writing day after day, knowing that you'll never make it?” To be honest, I don't know. Once you set out there's no going back. Eventually you find yourself stuck on an island in the middle of a blizzard and there's no where else to go.

“I will reach it,” I tell myself, skin turned black beneath the ice. “I will wait,” I reply, and like Emily I'm waiting still.

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