Mark's Reviews > Ring of Bright Water

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell
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's review
Apr 21, 09

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Read in March, 2009

A strange book by a strange author. It's always marked as a nature classic and a children's book, but the first classification needs a big old asterisk and the second is kind of bizarre. Yes, Maxwell lovingly describes the antics and affection of cute otters, though only in the last two thirds of the book. And then his story is often quite dark. I had this vague memory of reading this as a kid -- I do remember otters -- but now I wonder whether I got more than a couple of pages in -- and maybe I saw the movie instead, a sort of Disneyfied adaptation that came out in the 60s. "Ring of Bright Water" is a sort of Scottish "Walden," the (quite adult) story of a romantic loner living in a remote shore cottage in the West Highlands, a kind of Robinson Crusoe, really, who combs the beaches for flotsam and jetsam but whose inner life seems just as guarded as Crusoe's. I love passages like this one, describing the seashore at his house near the Isle of Skye:

“When one is alone one’s vision becomes more extensive; from the tide-wrack rubbish-heap of small bones and dry, crumpled wings, relics of lesser lives, rise images the brighter for being unconfined by the physical eye. From some feathered mummy, stained and thin, soars the spinning lapwing in the white March morning; in the surface crust of rotting weed, where the foot explodes a whirring puff of flies, the withered fins and scales hold still, intrinsically, the sway and dart of glittering shoals among the tide-swung sea-tangle; smothered by a mad parabolic energy of leaping sand-hoppers the broken antlers of a stag re-form and move again high in the bare, stony corries and the October moonlight.”

This poetic vision of the life in dead detritus prefaces the stories of death and life that Maxwell will tell. His loyal dog Jonny, who doesn’t feature all that centrally in the first part of the book, grows old and dies; Maxwell’s grief over his death comes after and before scenes of animal violence—rabbit hunting, goats dying, a massacre of fish. Maxwell decides he cannot replace Jonny with another dog, but soon decides he wants a pet otter instead. This is where I almost put the book away without finishing it: he procures his otter in Iraq (it’s the 1950s, when the British were still “in” Iraq) and brings it to Scotland—which I found weird and somehow irritating, since there are plenty of otters already in that region. I guess I assumed when I bought this book that he had tamed some of the wild Hebridean otters, which seems more charming than the truth, which is that he smuggled (not exactly, since there were no or fairly lax regulations on the importing of wild animals in those days) his otter Mijbil into Britain, under not very pleasant conditions. (Let the sensitive reader beware.) In keeping with his general lack of introspection, Maxwell hardly grapples with the ethical aspects of all this. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading the book, really, since: a) the author is himself a curious specimen; b) his writing, especially in describing wild places in the Highlands, is often powerful; and c) his depiction of otters is detailed and moving.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Derek (new)

Derek Never would I have guessed that I would read the words "his depiction of otters is detailed and moving," or that they would have been in such an interesting review. The quoted passage certainly makes it sound like it's worth picking up for the adjectives alone, even if it's not my "usual."

message 2: by Dina (new)

Dina How can any description of otters *not* be detailed and moving? Really.

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