Isle of Mull – The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre

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Usually after I finish reading a book, I know exactly how I experienced it. Sentences and scenes can stay with me for days. With The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre I wasn’t sure of my ‘final judgement’. It was such a mixed bag. I thoroughly enjoyed some parts, but struggled with others. And it’s hard to summarise in a few lines what the book is about, which can be a good thing.

Ivor Punch is an old man and former policeman on a small island in the west of Scotland. He doesn’t speak much. But when he does, he throws in the word fuck every few lines, a habit that I found utterly annoying, because it made him come across as an imbecile, and it halted things, I didn’t see the point of it. But what Ivor does do really well, is write loads of letters (which, again, he peppers with countless fucks). The letters are revealing, touching and very true, and are the framework of the story. All those letters are linked to island stories, to the people who live(d) on it, including multiple Punch generations. Fiction and facts are liberally mixed up.

To me, the storyline that was head and shoulders above the others was about Henrietta Bird, the stay-at-home sister of the Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, her one moment of passion with one of the incommunicative Punch men and a visit from Charles Darwin (who is introduced as a kind of counterpart to the strong Christian faith on the island), who comes to Mull to officially reveal the new clock in Tobermory, but doesn’t quite make it on the day. I would have been really interested in reading more about these two sisters and Henrietta’s life on Mull; a subject worthy of its own novel.

An example of fiction mixed with fact is that the building of the clock tower in the harbour of Tobermory on Mull was indeed funded by Isabelle Bird in memory of her beloved sister Henrietta.

I loved it that the island is at the heart of the book. The relationship with the land and the sea, with all the things you can lose as an island. Many eccentrics inhabit the book. There is folklore, grief, disgrace, clifftop landscapes and  a headless horseman. As a non-islander I felt the magic of it, but also the oppression, the possibilities, the history you can only really understand if you or your family were part of it.

After finishing the book, I came across  the afterword – first published as an article in the Irish Times, called Mull of Colin MacIntyre; from stage to page. I read the book on an e-reader, so hadn’t really leafed through the book before I started, otherwise I may have read it first. And I wish I had , as it cleared many things up for me. I would have understood and perhaps appreciated the book more.

Here you can hear and see author Colin MacIntyre tell you a bit more about his debut novel.

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