Children's literature

17th January 1997 at 00:00
DAUGHTER OF THE SEA, By Berlie Doherty, Hamish Hamilton Pounds 10.99

My tale is of the sea. It takes place in the far north, where ice has broken land into jagged rocks, and where black and fierce tides wash the shores. "

Berlie Doherty's new novel takes us away from the familiar, the urban - but not to any easily magical alternative. This 2 is a story inspired by the tougher end of the folk-fairytale spectrum, and comes out of a nexus of songs, tales and beliefs still current on the north and west fringes of these islands, that of the selkie in the traditional song: "I am a man upon the land, I am a selchie in the sea."

Berlie Doherty's selkie is a girl child. She is snatched from the cradling seaweed by a childless fisherman, but he and his wife cannot bear to let anyone, even themselves, know that their new baby is "from the sea".

They cannot accept the certainty that she must one day return there. Their long hunger for children, and the compassionate worries of relatives and friends over the real provenance of this unexpected baby, make this retelling of the legend remarkably vivid and painful.

There is also fierce joy, and - the book's central achievement for me - the unfolding story of the baby's special link of love with her cousin Harris, who is nearly six when Gioga arrives.

It is Harris, eight years later, who, with the help of the strange and wise woman Eilean, acts out of real love in setting Gioga free, enabling her to return "home".

In this retelling, the ancient selkie legend reaches both straight to the heart, and to the heart of the family. As David Thomson said in The People of the Sea "all great story-telling, spoken or written, contains layer upon layer of meaning and the older you grow, the more you experience actual and imaginative life, the deeper you are drawn." Berlie Doherty offers today's children a lyrical, tough and contemporary immersion in the legend.

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