The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle
by Kirsty Wark
(Two Roads Books)
For the final book on the First Book of the Year shortlist, we return again to a Scottish island (another shortlist trend), this time to Arran, where the eponymous Elizabeth Pringle has recently died, leaving an unusual bequest behind her. With no family and few friends, she leaves her house to a woman who, years earlier, had written to request she be informed if it ever went on the market. However, as Anna Morrison is suffering the effects of dementia, it is her daughter Martha, an Edinburgh journalist, who comes to the island to take possession of the house and to find out about her unexpected benefactor.
If I’m honest, this is the book I was least looking forward to reading from the shortlist. The sepia-toned cover and the rather prim title are exactly the sort of things I would walk straight past in a bookshop and, while I think Kirsty Wark is a fantastic broadcaster, it is difficult not to cringe a little at the celebrity-turned-novelist genre. All of which proves that I am a snob and quite probably missing out on some great books, because ‘The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle’ is a well-written, assured and highly engaging first novel. In fact, it doesn’t read like a first book at all, the writing characterised by a confidence and precision that belies Wark’s inexperience (though I suppose those are qualities required in a journalist) and the dual-narrative, decades-spanning structure signifying an admirable ambition.
Moreover, there are some interesting ideas and themes going on here. A near-recluse by the time of her death, Elizabeth Pringle is that most unusual of fictional protagonists, a woman who chooses home over new horizons, who chooses the connection of her roots over adventures into the unknown.
‘But I feel no excitement at the prospect of living on the other side of the world. How can Mother want me to go? I can’t understand it. This is my home.’
‘You can make a home there, and a future. That is what Izzy is thinking about, my dear.’
‘But this is my home. If I close my eyes I can see every twist and turn on the String Road. If I conjure up the roses in our garden I can smell their scent. Holy Isle is my constant companion. I want to live here with Robert, nowhere else.’
In placing such a character at the centre of her plot – and, by dint of that plot’s nature, forcing an examination of every detail of her life – Wark’s story poses the question of whether a life that most would characterise as small, sheltered or isolated can have as much value, emotion and complexity as one marked by variety and drama. Admirably, she mostly resists the urge to either censure or defend her character – Elizabeth’s choices are made from self-knowledge, not from cowardice, or unimaginativeness but we still see her doubt and pain in considering the path not taken.
I am finding that the monumental effort I am making to remember myself as I was then disturbs and unsettles me. It makes me doubt. Should I have searched out another man with whom I could have shared such passion? I had squandered one chance and taken hold of the second, although I knew he could never be mine. Perhaps I thought that I didn’t deserve a third.
It’s a shame, then, that Wark ultimately succumbs to more plot-driven, sensationalist urges, undermining the strength of will she has created in her heroine by explaining her lifestyle away as the result of horror and tragedy, rather than a genuine preference for solitude and steadfastness. I was so disappointed to find that, instead of a book which genuinely considered a so-called ‘small’ life to be equally as valid as any other, ‘The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle’ ultimately portrays it as a shame and a waste. It’s pat and predictable writing, which is sad to see in a book with such potential, written by an intelligent and informed author.
Similarly, I found the contemporary sections of the novel to be much weaker than those spanning Elizabeth’s life. Again, there are interesting ideas presented: how to deal with an aging, struggling parent; how sibling relationships function and change; how religion and spirituality shape a life. In some of its stronger sections, the book even put me in mind – unexpectedly – of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’, in that both works explore the difficulty and inevitable inaccuracy of piecing together a person’s history from fragments of records and remembrances. However, Wark forgoes the ambiguity and dramatic irony of Stoppard’s play, tidying up her plot and the characters’ speculations up by having one of them produce a copy of Elizabeth Pringle’s memoirs to fill in any gaps in their knowledge. Too easy, too neat. Moreover, these themes are too often ignored in favour of focusing on the soap opera of Martha’s relationships:
‘I’m not sure where to begin, and I feel as if I am just starting to get to know [Elizabeth]. I mean, obviously I’ll never know her, but everything in here helps a little. . .’ Martha stopped mid sentence. ‘Does that make any sense?’
‘What would you like to know about her?’
Niall looked at her directly and Martha suddenly felt the sensation of emotional vertigo. She feverishly tried to calculate the right tone, her anxiousness not to upset or offend him compounded by the fact that she definitely found him utterly overwhelmingly attractive.
Such romance-novel tropes – the above relationship follows the familiar ‘prickly first impressions turn to sexual tension’ arc – undermine the novel’s literary potential, in keeping with Wark’s habit of going for the neat, or sentimental, over anything more challenging.
This is a very pleasant book to read, it’s pacy and engaging with a strongly conveyed sense of place – some of the descriptive passages are truly beautiful. Despite some fascinating concepts, though, Wark is unable to raise her novel into the realms of real literary power. Had she been more incisive with her themes, explored more thoroughly the value of a ‘small’ life or the difficulty of trying to understand a person’s history from a few fragments, this might well have been a more impressive, more valuable piece of work. Instead, the novel’s focus is too often on the soap opera of its contemporary characters, placing sentiment where there should be insight. Once again, I’m left wondering whether the emotional impact of a piece of writing can make up for shortcomings in style or originality. In this case, I can’t escape the feeling that Wark sacrificed her more interesting, more challenging ideas for sentiment and neatly-tied-up storylines, which might produce a more widely appealing work but definitely doesn’t make for a great literary achievement.