The imagery on the cover, symbols of earth and sky, is a perfect reflection of this novel’s focus on the conflict between earth-based and sky-based belief systems in 7th-century Northumbria.
Their belief systems cannot be corralled inside proper definitions and their everyday lives require flexibility in a time of great change.
It is the opposite of simple.
In fact, the capacity to hold two seemingly-opposed ideas in one’s mind simultaneously as two valid perspectives, is the reason Lauren B. Davis is on my list of MRE (MustReadEverything) Authors.
This quality was evident, too, in her Giller-Prize-nominated novel, Our Daily Bread.
A person’s ability to have intense hate and love inhabit the same heart. (Then, this phenomenon extrapolated to larger groups, like family and community.)
And in The Empty Room, she presents a character who possesses both great strength and great vulnerability.
“She was just at that point when she could see behind the masks people wore, could see down to what they really thought and felt and understood the judgments they passed – and it was always so ugly, so wounding.”
These themes fit with her most recent novel Against A Darkening Sky as well.
Another characteristic shared by these works is the attention paid to the solitary figure.
“Surrounded as he was by kin – practically drowning in them – there wasn’t a single person Albert could call ‘friend’.”
This passage is from Our Daily Bread, but it is also true of Egan in Against A Darkening Sky.
Colleen, too, in The Empty Room feels alone and desolate. “She still had her writing. She should be writing this very minute.” (In some ways, I think Colleen’s writing is similiar to Wilona’s gifted sight.)
When Against A Darkening Sky opens, Wilona and Egan are truly solitary figures. Years pass, and readers learn that each of them has been afforded the opportunity to join a community, but although each of them manages to forge some meaningful connections, neither feels a true sense of belonging, and each continues to feel alone.
In Wilona’s case, this status is formalized; she becomes a seithkona, her gift undeniable and prescriptive.
‘The owl is a mysterious bird. You’ll be able to see the truth beneath a lying tongue. You’re gifted with sight into the dark, that’s true, but it’s a lonely gift. People will shy away from you. You will be alone, but that’s what a seithkona’s life is and you must accept it, for it has chosen you. You understand?’”
Readers, alongside the young Wilona, do grow to understand her connection with the land and its inhabitants, be they flesh or spirit, as she comes of age, studying with Touilt. (Their relationship is, for me, the heart of the story, and many of the scenes with these two women are those which linger, still, in my mind.)
By the time that Egan’s storytline intersects with Wilona’s, and the influence of Christianity has grown politically in the land, Wilona has accepted her position; the conflict, however, is only just beginning to touch her life.
“She wants them to know she’s staying and they don’t frighten her. She wants them to understand the gods still have a place here, where the fox bids goodnight to the hare, in the liminal space between the village and the wild wood. She wants them to see the wolf head over the lintel, and the freshly carved runes.”
The process of negotiating an understanding or, at least, of securing a dwelling within the community as the power in the region shifts, is difficult. Ironically, the women’s greatest support appears to come from within the group who threatens the seithkona.
“She half pities him, and yet his respect for the wild places seems sincere, and when she thinks of the way he treated Dunstan and Roswitha, she can not deny his gentleness. ‘You confuse me, priest.’”
Because the narrative is firmly rooted in the perspectives of two solitary figures, readers are as surprised by some community developments, as Wilona and Egan to discover that actions taken to secure power can be fierce and sudden, brutal and harsh. (Readers who found her last two novels page-turners of a sort will find a similar atmosphere of tension here.)
“Her skin is a tapestry detailing her ordeal – scratches, teeth marks, purple and green and red bruises in the shape of fingers and knees, on the inside of her thighs, the inside of her arms, across her breasts, her stomach, a gouge where her left breast seams into her ribs. She’d use the dagger and skin herself to erase every trace if she could.”
Much of this story is sombre (those darkening skies, on the cover, are portents indeed) but although readers may have to squint, at times, to see the moments of communion, there is some respite.
“He never has to strain to see God in the deer and weasel, the stones, the trees, the stars; it’s only among humans that sometimes, sometimes, he doubts.”
It’s notable that both Egan, whose position rests in a newly sanctioned power, and Wilona, face a similar struggle. But this is not presented as a socio-political movement, but a personal reconciliation of their own personal belief systems, which are declared incompatible (either wholly or by degree) with their need to survive a rapidly changing landscape.
The conflict between earth-based and sky-based belief systems externally, the conflict between doubt and faith internally: Lauren B. Davis’ Against A Darkening Sky takes readers into territory which feels, at once, familiar and fresh.