Like many readers, I keep a lengthy list of books I want to read. But honestly: I almost never refer to it, because I also subscribe to a readerly belief that the books you need to read will find their way to you. I tend to choose what I read by a combination of book reviews, what my library friends are talking about, what comes in on my hold shelf, and serendipity. If I read about a book and the description speaks to me, I'll see if my library has it, and if not I'll often suggest that we buy it. But sometimes I forget. Or sometimes the collection developer forgets to put me on the hold list.
But I don't stress too much about getting my hands on most books (there are, of course, exceptions; I'm particularly excited to read Ursula le Guin's newest poetry collection and, Megan Abbott's newest, You Will Know Me, which is a thriller about, wait for it: gymnasts!). I think that if the universe wants me to read a book, eventually I'll find myself reading it.
Such was the case with The Grace Keepers, by Kirsty Logan, which I first read about on Book Riot (I think). My library eventually got a copy, but I forgot all about it until I spotted it on a discard cart, and then I remembered it: a story about a future world that is mostly water, with scattered islands, and a society that (thus, obviously) values land ownership much more highly than owning a boat, which the majority of people must do, and has, as part of its culture, a rule that boat dwellers—called damplings—may not be buried on land. And the cover? Well. It seemed intriguing, especially the most inventive part: the boat dwellers are buried at sea, in the doldrums, in grace yards. Each sunken body is guarded by a cage with a bird in it; when the bird dies, the family can stop mourning and move on. The work of the grace yards—preparing the bodies, saying the rites, putting the bird into the cage—is done by grace keepers.
This is a story in two parts, that of Callanish, who has exiled herself as a grace keeper after making a mistake that cost her mother dearly, and of North, who works in a circus. Callanish has a secret, which she hides with her white dress, gloves, and slippers; she lives caught between memory and the needs of the mourning. The circus North works in is made of damplings. They travel from island to island to perform; their main sail becomes the big top, and each of the performers float behind the larger boat in small coracles. North performs with a bear, a different dance depending upon the mood of the island they've sailed to. Her bear is like a child to her, but a child with the potential of damage. Aside from the bear, North is alone in the world; her parents died performing in the same circus, and while she has affection for the other circus members, she doesn't quite trust them. Not even the ring master, Red Gold, who has decided that North will marry his son.
An unexpected death takes the circus to the graceyards, where Callan and North share a quiet moment of spoken secrets, unwittingly creating a bond that will weave the two stories together.
When I first read about this, I thought it would be atmospheric and slightly creepy, and I was right. It's a blend of The Night Circus, Station Eleven, A Wizard of Earthsea and Waterworld, but it also reminded me quite a bit of The Shadow Behind the Stars (more in tone than in plot). The imagery of Callanish tending to the floating cages of dead and dying birds, the little ways the story nodded to the past (which is our time), the enormous cruise ships of revivalists, and the underlying struggle to remain human when most of what makes us human is gone: all of these are elements that will stick with me, but nothing more than the end, which is haunting and evocative and absolutely perfect.
Don't be surprised if it's one of my favorite books this year.