Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ring of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell

Gavin Maxwell’s memoir about his time spent in a remote part of Scotland, Ring of Bright Water, provides much that is interesting, especially the second part that describes his relationship with two fascinating pet otters. However, the memoir is somewhat marred by Maxwell’s over done writing style. Animal welfare questions also uncomfortably nag the reader’s conscience.

Ring of Bright Water by naturalist Gavin Maxwell was a multi-million seller hit in its day. Basically a memoir or autobiography, the book describes in mellifluous prose Maxwell’s time living in the West Highlands of Scotland at an area he called Camusfearna. The book is divided into two parts. The first part describes the wildlife of Camusfearna, where Maxwell resided on and off, in relative isolation.

The second part of the memoir is more interesting, and describes Maxwell’s adoption of an otter cub from Iraq called Mijbil. After Mijbil is killed, in rather brutal circumstances, Maxwell becomes otter obsessed and procures another pet otter, this time from Africa, whose name is Edal.

The first part of Ring of Bright Water is fairly dull and pedestrian, unless you’re fond of flowery prose. Maxwell has a tendency to overwrite, which overshadows the environmental subject matter he is supposed to be describing. There are too many unnecessary adjectives and grand allusions in the writing which bogs it down somewhat. Samuel Johnson’s suggestion to writers to cut out what they are particularly proud of comes to mind. Hence some readers may get frustrated with Maxwell’s prolixity. Maxwell’s personality sits plonk in the middle of the book, and sometimes you want less author and more first hand observations.

The second part of the book is far more engaging, as Maxwell draws particularly vivid portraits of his two pet otters, with their engaging personalities. Mijbil and Edal are almost like two little people, with their love of playing and inquisitive minds.

Overall, I had ambivalent feelings about Ring of Bright Water. The transportation of animals such long distances (in Mijbil’s case, from Iraq, in very harrowing circumstances), merely to keep them as pets, seems to raise ethical questions. Mijbil was brutally killed when Maxwell left him in rather dubious care for two weeks while he took time off in London to write. In one part of the book Maxwell even buys a lemur from Harrods, until it is no longer practical to keep the animal in his London apartment. You have to wonder what Maxwell was thinking. You’d expect a naturalist to have more common sense about such things.

Ring of Bright Water was made into a movie in 1969, which it seems certain must be entertaining, if it concentrates on the relationship between humans and otters. As for the book, it’s hard to get past Gavin Maxwell’s slightly creepy and disconnected personality. He died fairly young, the result of an eighty cigarette-a-day habit (he even kept a packet of cigarettes near the toilet).

This review is obviously not a glowing one. Ring of Bright Water has its insights and interests, but not quite enough to make it a brilliant book.

Ring of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell. Published by Little Toller Books. ISBN: 978-0-9562545-0-4

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