- Alistair Braidwood
A Space Odyssey: A Review of Harry Josephine Giles’ Deep Wheel Orcadia...
I started Harry Josephine Giles’ Deep Wheel Orcadia three times over, trying to work out the best way to read it. That may sound like more work than necessary, but this is a book which rewards the engaged reader greatly. It’s a novel written in verse, and there are two versions. At the top of each page is the text written in Orcadian dialect, a wonderfully rich and evocative language which can be read, understood, and enjoyed on its own. Below is the English version – or rather an English version. I initially presumed this was direct translation and only looked to it if there was a word or phrase I didn’t fully understand.
What quickly became clear was that the two versions feed into each other in a way which is profound, and that to fully understand the story I had to read every word. The translation offers multiple options for certain words and phrases, something which gets to the heart of all translation in that it is impossible to always have exact or standard interpretations for other languages. So, “skrankie haands puskan” is offered as “scraggymeagrespidery hands fidgetfussgustsearching”, or “stoor” translates as “stormduststrife”. Every word is carefully considered, and you will get multiple readings of the story depending on how you approach it. There are rhythms to reading Deep Wheel Orcadia, and you have to find your own.
However, a successful novel needs to engage readers on a number of levels, and while you may be intrigued and impressed by the style, you stay for the stories. The characters who live, love, work, and dance on Orcadia have lives which are determined by their roles and status. The main relationship which develops between artist Astrid and traveller Darling is at the heart of the matter, but there are others and each and every one has their own tale to tell. It’s relevant that this is science fiction, a genre which allows, and even encourages, experimentation. It brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey if it had been written by Robert Alan Jamieson, or Matthew Fitt’s But n Ben A-Go-Go.
Like those, Deep Wheel Orcadia is a meditation on humanity, with romance and melancholy in evidence, and the Orcadian verse in particular feels like a modern take on epic poetry. It’s an endlessly fascinating and revealing read which examines not only language, but themes of art, science, class, gender, love, longing, and especially community. Deep Wheel Orcadia encourages further investigation in all sorts of ways, which is what the best books do.
Winner of the The Arthur C. Clarke Award, Deep Wheel Orcadia is out now - published on the Picador imprint of Pan MacMillan
A version of this review first appeared in Gutter magazine