Book Review: Deep Wheel Orcadia, Harry Josephine Giles

Astrid is returning home from art school on Mars, looking for inspiration. Darling is fleeing a life that never fit, searching for somewhere to hide. They meet on Deep Wheel Orcadia, a distant space station struggling for survival as the pace of change threatens to leave the community behind.

Deep Wheel Orcadia is a magical first: a science-fiction verse-novel written in the Orkney dialect. This unique adventure in minority language poetry comes with a parallel translation into playful and vivid English, so the reader will miss no nuance of the original. The rich and varied cast weaves a compelling, lyric and effortlessly readable story around place and belonging, work and economy, generation and gender politics, love and desire – all with the lightness of touch, fluency and musicality one might expect of one the most talented poets to have emerged from Scotland in recent years.


An undeniably beautiful and lyrical piece of science fiction poetry but, for me, the beauty of the language and the translation came at the expense of vivid charaterisations; there was an ephemeralness about the characters, a transparency, that was perhaps deliberate – how small we are in the vastness of space and time and Light is, after all, a familiar science-fiction trope – but left me wanting more of the humans.

What I Liked

  • The lyrical flow and rhythm of the poetry in the Orkney dialect.
  • The depth and heft of the translated sections and the blended interpretations of the Orkney words.
  • The tenderness and evocativeness of the relationships on board the space station.

What Could Have Been Different

  • More depth and weight given to the characters

This is a captivating and gorgeous read!

It is a gentle meditation on the nature of home and of belonging. Set in the science fiction familiar concept of a human space station lightyears from Earth, this is novel that uses that distant and (literally) outlandish setting to compound and to focus an issue and theme which is deeply personal and intimate.

The Wheel, the space station, seems old and creaky, distant and half forgotten, and home to a collection of residents – workers, pilots, archaeologists, light gatherers, pub owners. And into the station come Astrid and Darling, one returning home from Art School, one fleeing from life in which she did not fit and trying to reinvent a life for herself. Everyone seems to be trying to find the life that suits them, to find the culture, the society, the people who will make them feel at home: Astrid, we are told

sheu catches the grief o whit will come
if the pairts o her canno find thir piece.

she begins to feel grief about what will happen if the parts of her can’t find their placedistancepartwhile.

And Giles is excellent at capturing emotion as one visitor catches the eye of another

An Astrid leuks tae anither body,
stannan at the vizzie-screen:
taall, pael, reid hair ravsie,
Martian style, gappan at the sight.

Sheu coud been a student fae college, but no
like Astrid, at waants tae waatch her an kinno
disno: sheu’s ferfil bonnie an warld-like
fer Mars, but here i’the ramse poly

habitats o inner space,
sheu’s a aafil queerie sowl.
The visietor leuks aroon an grins
at Astrid, at leuks awey, no kennan

whit wey tae meet incoman joy.

There is a lightness to the more sciencey elements of the story too: we see the gathering of Light – which is just a beautifully described as Astrid’s feelings – and Light appears regularly, but there is no need to explain or to develop that world building any more than there was a need to explain away the more mysterious elements of the world – the Light behaving in unusual ways, almost as if sentient, or the visitations or the impossible wrecks that are encountered… There seems to be something unsettling – something rotten – in the state of Orcadia but this writer is courageous enough to leave it at that.

And we do need to mention the language a little more: did I read somewhere that this is the first novel written in the Orkney dialect in fifty years? Not that that, nor the fact that this is verse, put you off – the Orkney verse sections are broadly comprehensible especially if read aloud in a Scottish accent, or if you have the audiobook version, and the English “translation” supports it. I found that I enjoyed both versions of the language immensely. The Orkney reminded me of Middle English a lot in its cadences and pronuciations – Chaucer, Gawain and the Green Knight – and found that a very strange dislocation as the language felt (tasted?) ancient in a novel set in the future. Simultaneously the English was very poetic as Giles offered up two or three blended possible translations of words within his lines. If we look at the opening stanzas

Sheu waatched the Deep Wheel approch, gray-green,
hids Central Staetion tirlan yet
anent the yallo yotun, peedie
bolas teddert aroon hids ring,

pierheids trang wi yoles, wi glims,
an fund the gloup atween ootbye an in
clossan slaa – but only noo,
wi this soond, deus sheu ken whar sheu is.

She watched the Deep Wheel approach, grey-green, its Central Station still turntwistwhirlspinning againstaboutbefore the yellow gas giant, little bolas ropemoormarried around its ring

pierheads fullactiveintimate with boats, with gleampointlights, and found the chasmcleft between outside and inside closing laxslowly – but only now, with this sound, does she know where she is.

“Tirlan” is “turntwistwhirlspinning”, “anent” is “againtaboutbefore”, “teddert” is ropemoormarried – or tethered would seem an even more suitable translation both semantically and phonologically – and “trang” is “fullactiveintimate”… I love that elision of meaning in the translations, the fact that words are almost never direct cognates of each other and English has so many partially synonymous words and so few full synonyms… it is gorgeous, although when the same word is used twice in quick succession and the translation is the same blend it felt suddenly more mechanical and less organic – less playful – than it did through the majority of the novel.

The language is without doubt the strongest most resonant part of the reading experience here – and the characters, whilst I enjoyed seeing snapshots of them, did feel a little distant and a little less vivid than they deserved. But perhaps that is the nature of the form – this is a very slim book after all, and it is poetry and inherently perhaps more focussed on the interiority, the thoughts and feelings, of the characters – and perhaps thematic. The characters felt thin and somehow flimsy, vulnerable, being lost in the language and in space and for a novel that seemed focussed on their sense of being adrift, perhaps this was deliberate. It did mean that they feel, after finishing the reading, almost ghostly and ephemeral and I feel that they will be characters who stay with you and haunt you long after finishing reading…

Overall

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Page Count:

176 pages

Publisher:

Picador

Date:

14th October 2021

Links:

Amazon, Goodreads

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