Kirsty Logan is no stranger to secrets. The Glasgow-based author's award-winning short-story collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, beautifully brought together myth, magic, and the muted fantasy of the everyday. It also dealt with curious topics like circuses and worldwide floods — two things that resurface in her captivating debut novel, The Gracekeepers.
Set in a world that's been almost entirely inundated by the ocean, The Gracekeepers follows the performers of the seaborne Circus Excalibur, a convoy of vessels whose mainsail is converted into the big top each time the circus finds land. That land, however, is coveted and scarce, which leads to two contentious classes of people defined by whether they live on liquid or solid: damplings and landlockers. Mysteriously, the practitioners of the solitary profession of gracekeeper are hired to perform a sacrificial ceremony in order for mourners to grieve the dead. And in the treacherous world of The Gracekeepers, death is a constant companion.
At first, it's hard to get a grip on the slippery setting of The Gracekeepers. It appears to be pre-industrial, without electricity or instantaneous communication, but there are vague hints that such things once existed. Mostly, people are isolated and provincial, eking out livings on whatever patch of earth or ocean they can manage. But some try to find joy and release in this world, most notably the players of the Circus Excalibur. The circus's "bear-girl," North, is an orphaned young woman who holds no grudge against the beast that killed her parents; the rest of the small crew have their own painful pasts and ways to cope with the hard life of the big top, from scandalous adultery to lofty, landlocker aspirations.
Logan braids the storylines of North and the others into a knot of hidden desires, covert betrayals, and noble romance. Things get even more tangled when the circus hires a gracekeeper named Callanish to perform her funeral rite for a deceased member of the company. Callanish feels drawn to North in a way she can't understand, and that magnetic pull forever alters the lonesome arc of her life. There's a dreamlike procession to the narrative, and its tangents are deliciously engrossing, from the haunting philosophy of the circus's trio of tattooed clowns, Cash, Dosh, and Dough, to the tragedy of seduction and envy that's intricately unfolding aboard the Excalibur.
The easiest comparison to make is to Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, but the slipper fits: Logan not only captures the cloistered eeriness of circus life, she does so in a way that lovingly reinvents both the weird whimsy and archetypal resonance of fairytales. Selkies, the supernatural beings from Scottish and Irish folklore, are mentioned by name, and Callanish has unexplained webbing between her fingers and toes; that doesn't mean, however, that The Gracekeepers ever lapses into anything so rote as a mermaid rehash. Instead, Logan crafts an exquisitely wrought diorama full of tenderly compelling characters; observations about grief, worship, social order, and human nature, and a love that transcends definition.
Of The Gracekeepers' many tantalizing questions, one looms silently over all others: Does the book take place in our world in the distant future? Or is it some fabricated world entirely? How Logan chooses to address that question — as well as our underlying need to ask it — is a testament to the quiet sureness of her voice and vision. The Gracekeepers may not trumpet its secrets or telegraph its intentions, but it does something far more challenging, and far more fulfilling: It dwells in the shadowy overlap of mystery and myth. And the way it owns that space is spellbinding.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.