How Are Things in Mandragora?

[NB: Before I left Twitter—having barely been on Twitter—I was inept at Twitter. Which would have been obvious to anyone who ever read how much (or rather, how little) I wrote there. The inability to edit, among other things, was a deal-breaker for me. Anyway, before I quit, I wrote a few last Twitter threads that I never posted. This is one. The date/time stamp for this post is retroactive; I’ve set it to the day I gave up on editing this particular post in TextWrangler.]

Emily Barton’s first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, is set in the village of Mandragora on an unspecified island in the Outer Hebrides. Chapter Two begins: “Our ancestors crossed the great body of water that lies between Scotland and ourselves in paper boats…”

But which island? It’s not important for the purposes of the book; but recently, Rick Wilson (a Floridian GOP media guy whose writing I, a liberal Yankee Jew, greatly admire) retweeted a note from Londonist about the map of Fictional Britain.

Fake Britain! Brilliant! I checked: Was Mandragora on it? It was not. Could it be? “[W]e’d love to hear suggestions for additions or corrections,” the map’s description noted. So I wrote.

In the UK, Yves Gundron’s publisher was Canongate Books; I mentioned in my email that The Scotsman‘s review was quite apt: “Like a saccharine-free prehistoric Brigadoon.”

Matt Brown from Londonist kindly replied to say that he’d be happy to add Mandragora to the map. But is the village on a coast or inland? he asked. An excellent question! On p. 33, Yves Gundron writes:

We know our mountains to the east, our mountains to the west, our mountains to the north, and our mountains to the south, and none of us, save Mandrik [Yves’s brother], has sought what lies beyond.

So the geography of their valley helps explain their isolation as a medieval village—changed by the arrival of Ruth Blum, the American anthropologist.

As a side note, the novel—especially the ending, where the device of story being in the form of a false document allows the reader to see the impending disaster that Yves himself cannot see—keeps being tragically relevant.

I starting poking around on Google Maps. Could there be a real island that fit the needs of the fictional island? The dot in the blue sea that jumped out immediately was the island Hirta, in the small archipelago of St. Kilda.

Neel Mukherjee, writing for T Magazine:

St. Kilda […] is one of the outermost outposts of the British Isles: Beyond it to the west lies the North Atlantic in an unbroken stretch until Newfoundland. The main island, Hirta, was inhabited until 1930. Beyond the reconstructed main village, which is just a row of half a dozen houses, the island is dotted with scores of cleits, stone storage huts with turf roofs, that characterize the St. Kilda archipelago.

Plus sheep, and “seabirds (and their eggs) for food“! This is promising!

But why is it uninhabited?:

The medieval village on Hirta was rebuilt in the 19th century, but illnesses brought by increased external contacts through tourism, and the upheaval of the First World War contributed to the island’s evacuation in 1930.

Mostly uninhabited:

St Kilda was bequeathed to The National Trust for Scotland by the 5th Marquess of Bute in 1957,” who leased land “to the Ministry of Defence as a radar tracking station for its missile range on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

In reality, “[t]here are no trees” on Hilda, writes Mukherjee. (There are in the novel.) “[W]hat can survive being buffeted by the North Atlantic winds from all sides year-round?” And Ministry of Defence staff would obviously notice a medieval village.

And it’s small. 2.5 square miles, a fraction of the size of the island where a very real uncontacted people in the news recently make their home.

But for the purposes of Fake Britain: A Map Of Fictional Locations In England, Scotland & Wales, I asked Emily, and she gives Hirta her approval.

Last question: Where is Mandragora relative to Laerg, a “fictional island […] which features in the 1962 novel Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes” and is “closely based on Hirta”? In the same spot? Or nearby?

Matt, in the end, smartly made them separate, but near each other. Since these are simultaneous overlapping realities, no one from Mandragora would never have encountered anyone from Laerg, and vice versa.

PPS By the way, if anyone at Canongate Books ever reads this, The Book Of Esther—called a “glorious mash-up […] breathtaking in its ambition and scope” (Chronogram) and a “wild pageant of tumult and valor” (Booklist), a novel “as addicting as a Jewish Game of Thrones” (NYTBR)—has no UK publisher.

At least, not yet.