Good writing offers the reader a vicarious experience. When that experience involves fishing water I’ve never fished, that for me is possibly the most enjoyable kind of reading. Malachy Tallack’s essay collection, Illuminated by Water (Pegasus Books, 2022), fits the bill perfectly.
These essays on fish and fishing are mostly set in Tallack’s home of Shetland, Scotland, and as an American who’s only ever fished in North America, I thoroughly enjoyed vicariously angling in the lochs of the Scottish countryside. Each piece has a definite sense of place that made me feel both that I’d like to visit Shetland and that I already had. Tallock’s essays come across as both foreign and universal.
Tallack’s answers to the question, why do we fish? are spot on. Some convey thoughts and feelings I’ve had myself but didn’t know others had. Some of them are thoughts that I’ve never consciously had but have rather felt them in my subconscious. There’s something heartening in a reminder of the universality of the human experience, and Tallack’s writing captures this perfectly.
“Angling has a steadying effect for me,” he writes, “not just when I am there, casting or catching, but at other times too, remembering, imagining. It offers a connection to place that feels more intimate and multifaceted than most, and an engagement with the natural world that is knotty and compelling.”
There are stories of getting skunked, a feeling to which I can overwhelmingly relate. And there’s a pervasive theme that despite slow and frustrating days on the water, the sport lets you catch fish just barely often enough to keep you coming back again and again.
“Such a balance allows angling to remain enjoyable whether anything is caught or not,” he writes. “We wouldn’t fish if there was no hope of catching; but nor would we fish if not catching felt like a disaster.”
The book as a whole represents a healthy balance of personal stories and research-based nonfiction. It’s comprised, mostly, of personal essays—first person narratives about Tallack’s own life. A singer-songwriter and journalist, his tone comes across as incredibly endearing. It seems that a lot of outdoor writers force a self-deprecating voice that’s poorly veiled as genuine, coming off as more of a humble brag than anything else. Tallack, though, comes across as real.
“I am, for one thing, a fly fisher primarily,” he writes, “and I cast for brown trout more often than for any other species. I am also, undeniably, an angler of middling talent. I have been fishing for a long time, and am competent within a limited set of circumstances, but beyond those I quickly, sometimes happily, descend into ineptitude.”
When I’m reading a book that I plan to review, I highlight passages that I find compelling, that speak to me. Reading Tallack’s introduction I found myself highlighting almost every line. I ended up putting the highlighter in the drawer and just allowing myself to enjoy.
Maybe part of what I like is that in some ways Tallack seems to be a kindred spirit. His approach to fishing, like mine, is one of trial, error, and experimentation, with more time spent enjoying walking in search of new water than analyzing any specific stretch. For me, I know as I’m doing it that it’s probably not the most effective way to catch fish, but I’m compelled to walk anyway.
“I am not methodical,” he writes. “Not in the slightest. Most times, I tie on a couple of flies that feel right, then cover as much water as I can, trying to find a fish that’s willing to take what I’m offering.”
Possibly what stood out most in reading Tallack’s work was his sense of and reverence for place—a reverence for that place as he stands on its banks and casts, but also many years later as he thinks back on it. I think this, more than anything, is something to which most people who fish in beautiful places can relate:
“I remember lakes I haven’t seen in nearly thirty years,” he writes. “I remember afternoons spent on boats and piers and rocky shores and heather-smothered banks. I remember numberless days in which nothing remarkable happened, except that I was searching for fish. Looking back, my life is illuminated by water.”
Illuminated by Water: Fly Fishing and the Allure of the Natural World
By Malachy Tallack
Publication Date: 2022