Kirsty Logan has become adept at inhabiting watery worlds that show the in-betweenness of things. In her newest novel, The Gloaming, she returns to the flooded landscape that she built in The Gracekeepers where her characters exist in the nebulous spaces between land and sea. Mermaids come and go, magic exists but is just as easily explained away, and characters that seek to run away from home just as strongly feel its pull for them to return. The entire novel is framed by slippery definitions, as hinted at by its title, which is the Scots word for that dusky moment between day and night.
Logan calls her novel a “queer mermaid love story”, and in it she seeks to complicate fairy tale characters’ traditional roles. Selkies and mermaids, rather than being imprisoned as fishermen’s wives, run away together to the sea. Yet rather than stay confined to the water’s unknowable depths, they also return to the land as a couple again and again. It would be tempting to hope that Mara, the novel’s shy protagonist, and Pearl, the enigmatic mermaid who sweeps her away, be assured a happy ending together, but Logan shows how both happy and tragic endings are problematic in their dichotomous portrayal of relationships. Mara and Pearl are allowed a more realistic love with bumps in the road and an ambiguous future, which is ultimately more freeing.
As with her previous writing, Logan draws from magical realism but does not allow it to define the world she writes in. Pearl is a mermaid, but a down-to-earth kind who relies on wigs and oxygen masks to carry out her aquatic performance. Belief in magic on the island mingles with Mara and her sister’s childhood fantasies, so that the everyday becomes shrouded in wonder. We see how superstition and folktales can inform reality, and also how it can bring comfort in the face of tragedy.
At its core, once all the magic has been stripped back, The Gloaming is a story about grief. This is perhaps where the characters could have done with more development, as the impact on their lives did not quite deliver the punch it could have. Logan’s writing is undeniably beautiful and captivates throughout, but any real depth of feeling is cushioned in atmosphere and richly descriptive prose. Folk tales are not known for their rounded characters though, so this is arguably not the point of Logan’s story.