Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack

This broadly appealing travelogue combines carefully crafted writing with immersion in Northern lands and contemplation of the idea of home.


Malachy Tallack comes to identify the northern Scottish archipelago of Shetland as home only after a long and troubled journey away and back again. In Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home, Tallack grapples with the concept of belonging to a place, while traveling around the world on a single parallel. “For just as we inhabit the landscape, the landscape inhabits us, in thought, in myth and in memory.” He opens with the evocatively titled chapter “Homegoing,” and wraps up, naturally, with “Homecoming.” The chapters in between might be characterized as home-seeking.

These titles serve as shorthand for a considerably more complicated story. Tallack was not born in Shetland, but a loss he suffered in his teens left him there, feeling stranded. Ever since, he has vacillated with the attraction of other places, of movement, and the comforting appeal of an idea of home. Sixty Degrees North describes his travels through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia and Scandinavia, which occupy the space of a year and thus document the North’s extreme seasons. This voyage is literally perambulatory, as Tallack compulsively walks, learning towns and cities by foot. In recalling an earlier time spent in Siberia, he studies his attraction to this place from a greater distance. He pursues home, even as he revolves around it.

While largely concerned with interior musings, Tallack makes a remarkable survey of cultures, climates and histories along the way. Ongoing themes include ties to nature and to community; the tension between isolation and engagement; stasis, movement and exile. His topics range over colonialism and native cultures, and the significance of peat, salmon and reindeer to indigenous peoples. He examines Scandinavia’s social and political systems, particularly in the Åland Islands, which belong officially to Finland but are politically independent and have a majority Swedish population. He touches on the science of climate change, the relative definition of “north” and the question of “denordification… as though by changing, by developing, by warming, the north can actually become less like itself.”

An introverted, quietly likable but troubled narrator, Tallack experiences no momentous events in the course of his travels, and even few conversations. His writing is thoughtfully composed, beautiful and often surprising, such as when he observes, “Loss shapes us like a sculptor, carving out our form, and we feel each nick of its blade.” Sixty Degrees North is not a book of action, but rather an extended meditation, on longing and belonging, on personal ties to place and on the particular nature of a certain band of earth and sea.

This review originally ran in the June 14, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 degrees (in two senses).

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