Mayhew’s narrative alternates between the perspectives of Viola, who is trying to understand her new home; an island native named Leah Cedars, who is struggling to reconcile her sexual awakening with the shifting loyalties and expectations of her community; and an omniscient perspective that delivers and embodies Lark’s austere principles and judgments.
“Impossible Causes” also jumps back and forth in time in ways that can be as foggy as the landscape the author evokes in passages of archaic prose. Yet the picture that emerges is an important one, concerning itself with the external governance of women’s bodies, their actions and their fates — a theme not confined to the remote Lark.
Leah and Viola present interesting contrasts of female experience. Both are headstrong and confident, yet one is worldly and young, the other a naïve adult. Mayhew sets them on a collision course that will reveal the island’s worst secrets.
While Leah wages war against tradition, expectation, her own simplicity and her sense of familial obligation, Viola becomes intrigued with the three oldest girls on the island, who people suspect are practicing pagan rituals at the behest of Mr. Hailey. Viola and Leah circle these girls on separate missions, at times concerned for them but often jealous and curious about what they are up to. In the end, the truth of the matter is all too common, but it takes on a particular resonance among the innocent islanders of Mayhew’s creation.
Over on Scotland’s mainland, where prostitution is legal, we encounter the world of Kirstin Innes’s racy debut, FISHNET (Scout Press, 336 pp., $27). The novel follows Fiona, a single mother who is stuck in a dead-end job well below her intellectual abilities, as she searches for her sister, Rona. When Fiona learns that Rona was working as a prostitute when she vanished, she begins a deep and all-consuming dive into the world of sex work.
The book opens with a nasty punch, a visceral scene that we later discover is what tipped the scales of Rona’s life and caused her descent. Or was it a descent? Innes’s approach to her subject matter examines this question with care, presenting the prostitutes as women with rich inner lives and interests.
“Fishnet” contains many more instances of gritty brilliance following its dramatic start. Innes’s depiction of respectable Scottish ladies on the sloppy, sticky, slithering prowl, during a “darker, squelchier” bachelorette party complete with a “seduction tutor,” provides a stark contrast to the more sedate doings of the call girls, hookers and streetwalkers. “Fishnet” can be oversexed at times — not everything in a novel needs to be on brand — especially when it comes to Fiona herself, whose prurient imaginings of prostitutes’ lives may well irritate some readers. The same is true of her quest to understand the power her sister might derive from selling sex. There are ways Fiona might do this without, you know, doing it.