"The Call of the Cormorant" by Donald S Murray is an intriguing and engaging novel based on the life of a real man. It's a book I enjoyed reading and one I would recommend to anyone wanting something memorably different to read. Written by an author who spent his formative years in the Western Isles, the descriptions of life in the - in some ways comparable - Faroe Islands ring very true. As does the handling of the competing pulls on islanders either to stay close to their roots or to spread their wings and move elsewhere.
You get a very good sense of the book from the publisher's blurb: "From the author of the prize-winning As the Women Lay Dreaming comes a remarkable ‘unreliable biography’ of Karl Kjerúlf Einarsson: an artist and an adventurer, a charlatan and a swindler, forever in search of Atlantis. As a child in the windswept, fog-bound Faroe Islands in the late nineteenth century, Karl Einarsson believes he is special, destined for a life of art and adventure. As soon as he can, he sets out for Copenhagen and beyond, styling himself as the Count of St. Kilda. He’s an observer and citizen of nowhere, a serial swindler of aristocrats and Nazis, fishermen and fops. But when his adventures find him in 1930s Berlin, he is forced for the first time to reckon with something much bigger than himself. As the Nazis rise to power around him, his wilful ignorance becomes unwitting complicity, even betrayal. Based on a true story, this is a fantastical tale of island life, of those who leave and those who stay behind, and the many dangers of delusions and false identities."
The book is divided into a series of long chapters, each dealing with a period in Karl's life: "Karl's School Years 1911-1912"; "The Weimar Years 1925-1933"; and so on. Each of these is itself subdivided into sections narrated by a particular individual. For the most part the narrative moves back and forth between Karl and his sister Christianna, though others do get an occasional say.
While Karl leaves the Faroe Islands for Denmark and then Germany, Christianna remains island-bound, living a life that is very different from the one she so often dreams about. In many ways it is the interplay between their diverging trajectories that gives "The Call of the Cormorant" much of its power. One life is sent spinning off in whichever direction circumstances or the whim of the moment takes it: while the other is stifled by duty and insularity.
It's clear from the rear cover where, geographically at least, Karl is heading. The question uppermost in this reader's mind from the moment Karl arrived in Berlin - or perhaps even earlier - was how the author could possibly bring the strands of his story to any sort of satisfactory resolution. He does a nice job of this in many ways, with some beautifully crafted echoes between earlier and later parts of the book. Inevitably there are loose ends and I was left wishing that some characters had made more of the - albeit sometimes fleeting - opportunities that presented themselves. But then, life's like that, isn't it?