Sandy, who is in his seventies, has returned from the sea to a croft, a home resembling his childhood, where with his dog, a cow and some chickens, he lives a quiet life, content, contemplating life's end and whether death is an absorbing return or a translation to a different state of being.

One of his occasional visitors is a young man, Allan, who, with his friends, uses Sandy's place (and Queenie, his dog) as the departure point for their innocent and youthful poaching trips, always sharing the spoils with their wider community.

But his appearance now is anything but innocent for in a fit of jealous (out)rage he has killed a man, Robert, and, on the run, one of the pursuing police officers is Robert's brother, Nicol. Ignoring abstract duty, Sandy provides help to Allan while watching in distress as hunter and hunted regress ever deeper to more primal levels as the complexities of justice and love are overcome with the singular dynamics of revenge and survival.

To complicate matters, hearing of Sandy's accident with a rutting cow, Lizzie, the girl who is the source of Allan and Robert's deadly argument, pregnant by Robert, turns up and finds shelter at Sandy's croft, having been in the eyes of her family, disgraced.

At the end Nicol gets his man but as man not as policeman, observed at a distance by Sandy, he kills Allan in a struggle. We are left, however, not knowing the outcome for Sandy decides not to report what he has seen of Nicol murdering in his turn. Duty once more succumbs to love - sheltering Lizzie from further pain (now that her child is born) and allowing Nicol the dignity (or otherwise) of his own conscience.

This was Neil M Gunn's penultimate novel and is a story heightened as if myth, yet never departing from the psychologically convincing. Many of Gunn's traditional themes are here - the contest of love and duty, women as idealised yet not sentimentalized weavers of community bearers of a continuity of survival and goodness, the importance of community even as it carries the shadow of tribalism and the healing, gifted nature of nature even as it carries the shadow of indifference to our fate. It too bears his trademark ability to weave tragedy and comedy together - the incident with the cow, integral to the plot, is yet light relief as is Sandy's affectionate struggle with his helpful widowed neighbour.

Gunn too is the master of mysticism in the ordinary - Sandy carries a number of moments when he recognises another self enfolded within that carries the potential of receiving illumination and those illuminations come woven into the very everyday - as, for example, sitting on a hillside, light shifting bearing an existential trust hard to communicate yet recognisable in the fabric of the world. Sandy is everyman, waiting patiently for his ''end'' having accomplished a rounded life who is drawn back into another cycle of obligation and decision. At first it is resented until relenting, he realises this love expressed is what rounding is for.

Gunn writes beautifully too, poetically in common speech, with insight and an abiding compassion. It is a great late work and a very fine novel by any standards of comparison.


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