The banshee’s exile

Edvard Munch 1895 lithograph of The Scream
Edvard Munch’s 1895 lithograph of The Scream

Joan Aiken: The Scream
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Edvard Munch’s expressionist work The Scream is justly famous for its haunting quality: a figure shrieks in the foreground while in the background of the original painting a lurid red sky is reflected in the waters of a Norwegian fjord. Two figures are strolling along a walkway away from the figure, intent perhaps on the two vessels at anchor or the port which can just be discerned by the steeple of the church.

Munch’s painting has not only given its title to Joan Aiken’s children’s book but also furnished one of the many themes that run through its pages. An iconic image that has found its way onto objects as mundane as a whoopee cushion given to the author transforms into a screech that causes a fatal traffic accident, a shriek that recalls a banshee’s cry which in turn inspires a composition by obscure composer Ronald Runaldsen, and a howling storm that produces a wave fit to swamp the puny boat of any owner who foolishly ventures out.

David and his sister Lu-Lyn are orphans living with their Gran, Mrs Drummond, in a tower block in Kirkbrae, a town on the northern tip of Scotland looking to the Atlantic in the west. As a result of the accident that killed his parents Davey, the young narrator, is confined to a wheelchair while his sister dreams of just two things: ballet and returning to Muckle Burra, the island where both she and her Gran was born.

But things are not going to turn out well, just as they haven’t since the remote island was deliberately poisoned by scientists after its population was evacuated. (Gruinard Island off the west coast of Scotland was the basis of this plot device: in 1942 it was contaminated with anthrax spores to test whether the bacterium might prove effective against Nazi Germany, and not declared safe until it was treated with formaldehyde in the 1990s.) Gran’s uncanny ability to rid her former island community of pests has been inherited by Lu-Lyn, but instead of using her talent for the good of others Davey’s sister uses it to deal with the bullies who taunt her, with unforeseen results.

This short novel is dominated by just three characters, Davey, Lu-Lyn and Gran. Davey is the almost passive observer: he barely initiates anything but has a sense of fair play. Gran is “thin and spare and old and cobwebby”, an ironic self-portrait perhaps of the author herself, then in her seventies. Lu-Lyn is by far the most dominating figure, intense, determined, creative and dangerous, with “a grin she could switch on and off like a blowtorch”. She it is who keeps a pigeon, in defiance of the rule of no animals in the tower block; she who devises a terrifying dance involving three spectacular backwards leaps to the music of The Banshee’s Exile; she who desires to return to the island, come what may, though the return may not be as she imagined it; and she who — very possibly — appears in the guise of an angry pigeon to forestall a deed that she doesn’t want to happen.

For Lu-Lyn is a very disturbed adolescent. Her scream — which incidentally precipitated the motor accident — is amplified throughout the tale by horrific events like the killing of a bird, the blinding of a youth, the felling of a mighty tree before its time. A dark tale indeed, dark enough for some readers to question its suitability for youngsters but one I feel which the target audience can well take in its stride.

The whole narrative is drenched in a brooding Scottish mist of old traditions maintained by small communities. A tidal race is called the Laird, topographical features are named after silkies and kelpies, an older magic based on blessings and curses hovers just out of sight but not out of ken. The tension builds and builds until the final wave resolves everything while leaving an emptiness behind. This is not a story for the faint-hearted but, so long as it doesn’t render you confused, it beguiles during the telling and remains spellbinding long after.

hokusai wave
Hokusai’s The Great Wave (credit: www.wallpaperlink.com)

First posted 24th February 2014.
I shall be scheduling a couple more of these reposts while I’m theoretically incommunicado by the seaside.

And here is a reminder that, under the hashtag #WilloughbyReads a bunch of Twitterati will be reading or rereading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase over a fortnight from July 29th:

24 thoughts on “The banshee’s exile

  1. Dark she certainly could be, and often in response as you say to actual events or news stories that had moved her. This one moved her to tears, and had to be exorcised. Tough stuff. Also linked to a wonderful piece of music she listened to while writing this story, Farewell to Stromness, by Peter Maxwell Davies, about another Scottish island, also full of wonderful brooding drama.

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    1. Ah, I thought it must be something like this, Lizza. it certainly is a cry against a wrong which had been done.

      I must find and listen to the Peter Maxwell Davies — thank you so much for this piece of info. As a student in the sixties I encountered him when he gave a day’s course to us music students in the University of Southampton. Very intense, with a piercing look — very disconcerting, as was his music at the time, when he would parody Jazz Age music before ‘deconstructing’ it musically. This was before he moved to the Orkneys and ran the St Magnus Festival.

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    1. It’s a very atmospheric piece of minimalism, Lizza — works well in different instrumentations — and I can see why Joan found it inspirational when writing The Scream. I’ll look out for a copy of the piano version, be nice to add it to my repertoire.

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  2. I think I am too faint-hearted at the moment to be able to handle such fare!
    Aiken in dark mood can be midnighty indeed.
    I enjoyed the image in your response above of the deconstructing Davies being ‘deconcerting’! 🙂

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    1. I was distracted, clearly: when I meant ‘disconcerted’ I was probably disconnected, discomfobulated and disturbed…

      I remember the accompanying concert, however, with his group the Fires of London (I think — it was nearly 50 years ago!).

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  3. Never heard of the fate of Gruinard Island before, Chris – I’m thankful for that piece of information. It reminds me of the fates of other islands in the XXth century, such as Bikini Atoll. Seems the humanity always had a penchant for playing god, but the XXth century certainly furnished it with more tools of destruction. A dark tale indeed, though seems that reality can be darker still.

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    1. I’d not heard of Gruinard before I researched this novella, Ola, but facts like these certainly make for chilling reading. Before, we devastated islands; now, it seems, multinationals and governments are prepared to devastate the whole world… ☹️

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  4. This story sounds like another “must read”. Your review reminds me very forcibly of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture”. I suppose it makes sense since the earth’s own scream might well be the howling of an Atlantic storm, especially on the west coast of Scotland which fits with the story too. Thanks for another super review. I hope you enjoy the seaside!

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    1. The Hebrides Overture with its folkloric overtones might be appropriate, given that the story is supposed to happen somewhere along the west coast of Scotland, but I hear more of Britten’s Sea Interludes (even though they describe a Suffolk seascape in Peter Grimes).

      And, as I write, I hear the sounds of a different seascape, the distant lapping of the sea as the tide goes out on a Devon beach—very calming!

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  5. I hope the holiday is glorious, and thanks for re-posting this. I do like a story with a dark heart.

    I’m not sure if I’ve read anything by Joan Aiken. I’ve just looked up her impressive list of writing, and nothing leaps out and says ‘you-know-me’ which judging by this review, means I’ve missed some interesting reads.

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    1. The holiday is glorious: Agatha Christie country… More later!

      The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is probably her best known children’s novel, but she’s written some adult ones too, a few Austen sequels in particular. I shall at some indefinite period in the future be reading and reviewing several, hopefully whetting your appetite! 🙂

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  6. I have always had in mind to read Aiken, though with no sign of starting any time soon. Until now. I have no idea why this one is exerting such a strong pull but it really is. Perhaps because I do know the piece of music, Farewell to Stromness, that Lizza referred you to, and that’s always had a pull for me too. Anyway, it’s gone straight in near the top of the wish list 🙂

    Happy holidays!

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    1. Thanks, Sandra. Music can be so powerful, especially when its emotive force is associated with or applied to a completely different situation. If the Maxwell Davies had an affect on you it may well rub off onto the Aiken too!

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