All the elements of a novelist's art

WILLIAM YEOMAN

Art is the art of showing the extraordinary in the ordinary.

"It's a story about people's quotidian lives," says Amanda Curtin of her second novel, Elemental. "It's about labour. Not only the labour of the herring girls but also the factory work, the fishing, the labour of children in those times, how it was essential to family and to village and to the fleet. It's also about metamorphosis."

Curtin's first novel The Sinkings, the story of a 19th century intersex convict, was published by UWAP in 2008 to widespread acclaim. While working on her second novel, she found it difficult to shut out the insistent muse of short fiction - thus her equally acclaimed 2011 short story collection, Inherited.

"A lot of other ideas were coming to me," says Curtin. "And a novel is like a marathon, so it was really wonderful being able to complete something during that process."

"That process" has now found its logical conclusion in Elemental, in which an elderly woman, Meggie Tulloch, writes her life story in a series of cheap exercise books for her granddaughter.

How to lift the matter-of-factness out of the fabric of history and imagination and make it sing is the task of poetry. Straddling the turn of the 20th century and largely set in the north-east of Scotland, Norfolk, the Shetland Isles and Fremantle, Elemental features a supple poetry of prose, a music that is both unique to time and circumstance and yet timeless and universal: "Elspet grabs hold of my gansey elbow and pulls me to the lean-to between our but-and-ben and Unty Jinna's," recalls Elemental's central character, the red-haired Meggie. "Pointing frantically, she is gulping at the air. Such a meekling. Elspet, as scaredy as a cradle bairn, seeing fairies everywhere."

It's an example of the way language and dialect work like grace notes giving wings to a four-square dance.

Elsewhere the effects are more subtle, a single word laying a charge which is detonated further on. For example, a gift of a butterfly-shaped biscuit - a thing of joy for Meggie - resonates darkly in the next section with, "Ma died in the early morning hours after Christmas night, as the first snow fluttered from the sky."

Elemental, a novel whose four-part structure mirrors the four elements - water, air, earth and fire - teems with such instances. And yet it is the art that conceals art, straightforward narrative and bright, sensuous imagery allowed to hold sway. Show, don't tell.

"It's important for me to go to a place, not just to see but to actually hear and have that immediacy of experience," says Curtin, who is also a book editor and lecturer at Edith Cowan University. "I think it adds a richness to how it forms in your head and therefore hopefully how it translates to the page."

So Curtin travelled to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands to spent time in the north of Scotland. She also visited Great Yarmouth in Norfolk ("a very bleak and interesting place").

"I plunged my hand into the North Sea to see how cold it was. I watched the sky and tried to imagine what Meggie would be seeing and hearing."

And yet underlying Curtin's skilfully wrought imagery is the eternal grappling of those fractious twins - memory and change. "I'm interested in memory. And in that human impulse to bear witness. But I'm also interested in change. I know a lot of people who don't cope well with change. Changes like the death of a spouse can really undo someone to the extent that they don't think they can come back from it.

"What you carry on with is not the same but it can be like the butterfly. 'If nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies.' We go through these enormously difficult things and we come through one way or another."