The action takes place over a bit more than a decade, starting in the Second World War and ending in the 1950's. Tony Chisolm is a career soldier who finds himself en route to the Faroe Islands looking for a spy on a Shetland Bus sort of set up. The spy is found, already dead, and is transported to Shetland where the corpse might be used to trap another spy (there are shades of The Man Who Never Was about this ,or so I think). There's a storm (evocatively described) and then an encounter with an eccentric local laird which sends the book off into a tangent when it adopts and adapts the story of The Giffords of Busta all mixed up with a drunken Jacobite and memories of the '45. Later on a preserved body in a bog echoes the finding of the Gunnister Man (he was dug up 5 years before this was published).
After that interlude it's back off to the war in Europe, then later Korea, with some recuperating in Singapore, with plenty of time to muse about nationalism, patriotism, the nature of compassion, what war does to a soldier, the importance of loyalty and tradition, why men become soldiers, the neccesity of a good library of female authors when on a longish stint at sea in the Royal Navy, and the difference between cowardice and bravery. Then finally it's back to Shetland to fish and fall in love.
Linklater served in both world wars, and Korea, he lived in Orkney for many years, and obviously knew Shetland and the Faroe Islands. It's an old fashioned book that sprawls all over the place with a bit of a boys own adventure feel to it, but it's also a rattling good read with some very funny lines, and interesting insights. This is the second time I've read it, I hope it's not the last.
Finally I can't resist sharing this - Chisolm, en route for the Faroe's has the captains cabin on the converted trawler the Navy are using. There is a book shelf full of Virgina Woolf, Colette, Rosamund Lehmann, and Elizabeth Bowen amongst others (including Chisholm's mother). Later he questions the captain (who doesn't know about his mother) about this...
'Do you read no authors but women?
'Not at Sea,' he said. 'The sea has two disadvantages: it's salt, as I mentioned before, and there are no women on it. Not in war-time. So female authors are a necessity, as well as a luxury. All those books - and some are a lot better than others - contain a woman who's undressing herself. Oh yes, they do! Some of them only unwrap their sensibility and their intelligence, but even they give you the feeling that there's a bed behind the door. But most of them take you on a beautifully observant, roundabout walk, that might be a little bit boring if you didn't know where it was leading; but it's leading you all the time, with unfaltering purpose. The whole thing - the whole female art of novel writing - is an exquisitely prolonged strip-tease.I don't know precisely how tongue in cheek Linklater is being here, definatley a bit, but I love the way that in the middle of all the spy and storm at sea shenanigans he stops to throw this in.