My heartstrings were tugged on several occasions reading Elemental by Australian author, Amanda Curtin. This novel was a generous read, spanning 444 pages telling the story of Meggie Duthie Tulloch. Meggie decides to gift her life story in a series of notebooks for her granddaughter, Laura, affectionately known as lambsie, to preserve her memory before she dies.
Her notebooks are named for the elements, ‘Water’, ‘Air’ and ‘Earth’ narrated from Meggie’s perspective in the 1970s, and a coda ‘Fire’ told from Laura’s perspective.
Meggie is the youngest child in a family of fishermen, in Roanhaven, Scotland. You would assume to read about men suffering as fishermen tackling the roaring seas, but instead we are educated with hardships faced by women of the sea, which I found horrifying.
Women toil from dawn to dusk, sometimes with their salt bitten wounds looking after their men who fish at sea; cleaning their nets, finding bait and even carrying them on their backs from boat to shore so their boots are kept dry.
From an early age Meggie and sister, Kitta are drowned in chores and drilled to believe women must follow in their mother’s footsteps. Meggie rejects this and makes the promise
to herself: ‘I would carry no man on my back.’ Neither would I Meggie!
Things change for Meggie when she lands a job as a herring quine at the age of 14. Though not her dream job, Meggie experiences life outside Roanhaven and thrives on the sense of freedom the job offers. During this time, entersMagnus Tulloch, Meggie’s first love. Meggie and Magnus eventually marry and migrate to Fremantle, WA in hope of a better life.
Thirty years after Meggie’s death, Laura receives her notebooks. Here the book changes voice and pace in the final element, aptly called ‘Fire’ where Laura and her daughter-in-law, Avril, narrate the accounts of son and husband, Cooper, a firefighter burned from rescuing a child. Laura and Avril stay by Cooper’s bedside as they bond over Meggie’s journals.
Out of the elements, ‘Water’ was the focal point in this book. The sea is made to be both the hero and the villain of Meggie’s life. Despite many tribulations and tragedies that strike Meggie and her family, she is proud of the life she has been given, she tells her granddaughter.
Meggie tells her story using Scots, Shetland and Doric words, making her narration poetic and brimming with Scottish authenticity. I found this writing style difficult at first, but Curtin manages to help me value this endearing side to Meggie.
Yes Elemental was a sad and poignant read, but engrossing enough to add to your reading list.