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November 26, 2018

Malachy Tallack's Playlist for His Novel "The Valley at the Centre of the World"

The Valley at the Centre of the World

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Malachy Tallack's debut The Valley at the Centre of the World is an authentic and evocative novel of Scottish island life.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"In his delicately wrought debut novel, journalist, songwriter, and nonfiction writer Tallack (The Undiscovered Islands:An Archipelago of Myths and Mysteries, Phantoms and Fakes, 2017, etc.) explores the meaning of place, freedom, and community to residents of a remote Scottish island."

In his own words, here is Malachy Tallack's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Valley at the Centre of the World:

The Valley at the Centre of the World is set in a small farming community in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland. It’s a place of abundant natural noise: bird song, livestock, the constant murmur or bellow of the sea. But it’s also a place renowned for its musical heritage – a tradition that continues to this day. The novel explores the ways in which people feel connected to this place, and the ways in which the life of a community is passed down, between generations and between individuals.

Northern Flyway: Curlew

Northern Flyway is an audiovisual collaboration between two innovative songwriters, Inge Thomson and Jenny Sturgeon – one brought up in Shetland, the other now living in the islands. Vocal harmonies, field recordings, traditional and electronic instruments: all come together in a series of tracks that explore the relationship between people and birds. This particular song opens and closes with one of the most distinctive sounds of a Shetland summer: the bubbling whistle of a curlew, a long-beaked wading bird. It is a sound that carries me at once to the landscape of this novel.

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks

Ever since I first heard ‘Astral Weeks’, in my early-teens, I’ve been struck by the weight of sadness it seems to carry – not just in the lyrics, but encoded, somehow, in the body of the song. It is the only piece of music that appears, named, in this novel; Alice, a relative newcomer to the valley, listens to it, and dances alone, as she remembers her late husband. The sadness of the piece, she recognises, comes in part from its fragility. ‘Even after hearing it a hundred times,’ she thinks to herself, ‘there seemed the possibility that, next listen, everything might fall to pieces, might crumble into imperfect parts.’ But there is something else too: a melancholy that resides in its exuberant, otherworldly beauty. As she dances, Alice is ‘reminded her that there was more beauty in the world than there needed to be, and that, sometimes, what was beautiful was also achingly sad.’

Malachy Tallack: Creeping Willow

Before I published my first book, nearly all of my writing was musical. This track, from my third album, is perhaps the closest in tone to that of the novel. It’s a love song, but is held tightly within the landscape of home. The longing in the lyrics is focused as much on a place as it is on a person.

Roddy Woomble: My Secret is My Silence

Part of what I wanted to explore in this book is the role of silence within small communities. Even in a place where everybody knows your business, there are always things that are not or cannot be said, and these silences become not just absences but, too, a kind of presence. This song, inevitably, brings that theme to mind. It helps, of course, that the lyrics are drenched with Scottish island imagery.

Joan Shelley: Stay on My Shore

I can’t play music at all while I’m actually writing; my mind is far too eager to listen rather than compose. But thinking back to the time in which this book was produced, it was Joan Shelley whose songs I turned to most often, once my own words for the day were done. Never showy or ornate, her voice is nevertheless an extraordinarily beautiful thing, both powerful and fragile at once, both rich and delicate. Even if she were not a fabulous songwriter – which in fact she is – I would choose to listen. There is a sweet, melancholic ache in every single word she sings.

Kris Drever: If Wishes Were Horses

A guitarist and songwriter from Orkney, Kris Drever these days makes his home in Shetland. One third of the experimental folk band Lau, Drever is also a superb solo artist. This song comes from his latest solo album, of the same title, and its final verse touches on the complicated kinds of homesickness that can afflict those who live in rural places.

Jenna Reid: Auld Noost

Musically speaking, Shetland is best known for its fiddle playing. There is a distinctive island style that brings together Norwegian, Irish and Scottish influences, and numerous players from the isles are known and celebrated around the world. Or, at least, so I’m told. Growing up, I resisted listening to or playing the traditional music we were pushed towards in school. When my brother practiced his fiddle, I would relocate to another part of the house, or else complain bitterly about the noise. But these days my distaste has very much softened. And who knows, perhaps one day I’ll even learn to love it! This particular tune is a beautiful slow air, written by Ronald Jamieson, and played by Jenna Reid (a classmate of mine, long ago, at school). The title is in Shetland dialect: a ‘noost’ is a shelter for a boat, a hollow carved into the land.

Bonnie Prince Billy: My Home is the Sea

Though my novel is contained, deliberately, on dry land until its final scene, the ocean is always a presence – a part of the community. Living on an island is like that: you are enclosed by water, never entirely seperate from it. And islanders – certainly Shetlanders – have always been drawn, literally and literarily, towards the sea. This track feels an apt one to end with then, particularly since it ties together two of the other artists already featured. Bonnie Prince Billy, like Joan Shelley, hails from Louisville, Kentucky, and the pair have often collaborated. And, to circle this playlist to a close, this particular live recording features, on accordian and backing vocals, Shetlander Inge Thomson, one half of Northern Flyway.

Malachy Tallack and The Valley at the Centre of the World links:

the author's website

Guardian review
Kirkus review
Scotsman review
Shetland News profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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