Scottish historical novelist Margaret Elphinstone ( The Sea Road, Voyageurs and Hy Brasil, among others) is famous for the depth and thoroughness of her research. So it's no surprise that she made flint tools and built a cowhide coracle, among many other research activities, before she wrote The Gathering Night, her Mesolithic "wilderness adventure" set 8,000 years ago on the west coast of Scotland.
What is surprising, however, is that the novel wears her research so lightly, that the wealth of day-to-day detail doesn't swamp the story. Mind you, the story, which is told over several nights by a dozen or so members of an extended Stone Age family, is a superbly gripping blend of murder, revenge and incest, which sweeps along with the inexorability of Greek drama.
The story begins when the young man Bakar disappears while on a solo hunting trip. Most of his bereaved family gets on with life, but Bakar's mother, Nekané, goes on long searches for her son, not returning for weeks at a time. Her search is also spiritual, and her family eventually realizes that she has "become Go-Between," turned into a shaman, capable of communicating with the natural world - including the spirit world, which in this society is perfectly natural.
Meanwhile, far away, an enormous tidal wave hits the east coast, wiping out whole communities of the Lynx tribal group. (This is a real-life event, a tsunami that hit Scotland around 6150 BC, and one of the few things known for sure about this era of Scottish history.) Four men leave the devastated area and travel west, seeking distant relations with whom to live. Three of the Lynx men settle inland, but one, Kemen, winds up on the coast with Bakar's Auk people, marries and becomes a valued member of the community.
There are several stories threaded into the main one, the mystery of the hunter's disappearance. There is Kemen's acceptance into the Auks, the importance of which in a hunter-gatherer society cannot be overstated: Without the support of a group, it is almost impossible to find enough food and shelter to survive. There is also Nekané's spiritual journey; it is all very well to become a shaman, but to be accepted as such by the community, and especially by the other shamans, is not so easy, especially for a woman. There is the mystery of why Kemen's new wife cannot speak. There are also various "political" subplots, both in the families and between family groups: Such things as where to overwinter acquire a deadly importance in the harsh conditions of Stone Age life.
Informing everything is Elphinstone's attention to the tastes, smells and textures of daily life, especially the ongoing, continuous search for food. The women - mostly, but not exclusively - are on an unceasing lookout for wild roots, nuts, herbs and plants. (There is no cultivation, of course, though Kemen is impressed to discover that the Auk people have the forethought to trim back a hazel grove.) Hunts are described with delicious attention to detail, from planning to execution to butchering, cooking and consuming. And since everything is told by the participants - the setting is the annual gathering of the various groups of the tribes; the stories are told around a campfire - it all falls into place perfectly naturally. This is what we did, this is how we did it, this is why it worked (or failed).
It should not be thought, by the way, that life is just nasty, brutish and short, though it is not easy. These people enjoy an active spiritual life; there is singing and dancing; craftsmen and craftswomen are proud of their work.
And there is no lack of humour; there is much joking, and much comment of the wry, ironic sort. I especially like the practice of what might be called anti-bragging: After bringing back a huge boar, one of the men says to the group around the fire, "So you thought someone would bring back meat, did you? Ah well, you're sadly mistaken, as you see. All we've got is this puny bit of a pig for you. That won't do you much good."
It's easy just to get lost in the rhythms of the various stories, to soak up all those details. But almost imperceptibly, the several plotlines are coming together. The solution to the initial mystery - what happened to Bakar? - is somehow both unexpected and inevitable, and the conclusion is positively thrilling, the Stone Age equivalent of a trial, followed by a hair-raising chase scene. What more could anyone want?
H.J. Kirchhoff is the deputy Books editor for The Globe and Mail.