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George Mackay Brown is one of the major Scottish literary figures of the twentieth century. A prolific poet and novelist, he took much of his inspiration from the myths and landscape of Orkney, and also from his deep Catholic faith. His collection of short stories A Time to Keep (1971) won the Katherine Mansfield Mentor short story prize and his novel Beside the Ocean of Time was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994. He died in 1996.
Brown's sweet coming-of-age novel about a fantasy-prone adolescent growing up in the Orkney Islands just before WWII offers some moving passages and fine, delicate prose but is sabotaged by a paucity of plot and narrative drive. Thorfinn Ragnarson is the daydreaming son of a tenant farmer, avoiding both work and school despite the best efforts of family, friends and neighbors. Instead, the boy dreams up elaborate historical fantasies. In a series of odd yet intriguing chapters, Brown (Vinland) transforms Thorfinn into a Viking traveler, a freedom-fighter for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the colleague of a Falstaffian knight who participates in the Battle of Bannockburn. The author then hurls his protagonist into the future as Thor, who returns to the Orkneys as an adult and recalls his internment in a German POW camp, where he discovered his writing skills. Thor also reflects on the history of the islands, the links between dreaming and writing and the whims of fate. Brown's lyrical descriptions and gift for local color capture the flavor of the Orkneys (where he was born), but his thin and choppy story line undermines this otherwise worthwhile effort. (Sept.)