Review: “The House Between Tides” by Sarah Maine

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Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: Atria Books

Release Date: 24th March 2014

4 STARS

SET IN OUTER HEBRIDES, SCOTLAND AND LONDON

 

The relentless summer sun of the US East Coast has had me, perversely, hankering for grey skies and sparse landscapes, and as such I’ve been picking up a fair few novels set in Scotland recently. The gorgeous moody cover of Sarah Maine’s debut novel drew me in immediately, as did the back cover descriptions of a gothic and atmospheric novel with a good old dose of murder and mystery. It was just what I needed.

The Blurb: An atmospheric debut novel about a woman who discovers the century-old remains of a murder victim on her family’s Scottish estate, plunging her into an investigation of its mysterious former occupants.

Following the death of her last living relative, Hetty Deveraux leaves London and her strained relationship behind for Muirlan, her ancestral home in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. She intends to renovate the ruinous house into a hotel, but the shocking discovery of human remains brings her ambitious restoration plans to an abrupt halt before they even begin. Few physical clues are left to identify the body, but one thing is certain: this person did not die a natural death.

Hungry for answers, Hetty discovers that Muirlan was once the refuge of her distant relative Theo Blake, the acclaimed painter and naturalist who brought his new bride, Beatrice, there in 1910. Yet ancient gossip and a handful of leads reveal that their marriage was far from perfect; Beatrice eventually vanished from the island, never to return, and Theo withdrew from society, his paintings becoming increasingly dark and disturbing.

What happened between them has remained a mystery, but as Hetty listens to the locals and studies the masterful paintings produced by Theo during his short-lived marriage, she uncovers secrets that still reverberate through the small island community—and will lead her to the identity of the long-hidden body.

 

Beinn Mhor

Beinn Mhor – a featured location in the novel

© Copyright Peter Fairhurst and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The novel is a dual narrative and swaps between the points of view of several of the main characters, although the bulk of the story is told through the eyes of Beatrice, the lonely wife of the difficult and talented painter Theo Blake in 1910 and Hetty Deveraux, his distant relative who inherits Muirlan House in 2010.

I must admit that I found the beginning of the novel slow. Maine’s descriptions are beautiful – she really captures the wind bashed coast and wild romanticism of the environment surrounding Muirlan House and the island but I stopped and started with it several times, finding it difficult to connect with the characters at first. I’m glad I persevered though as this story draws you in slowly, just as the island does Beatrice, and before long I was hooked.

What becomes apparent very quickly is that the discovery of the bones under the house and the resulting ‘murder mystery’ quickly play second fiddle to a story that is essentially about belonging and what it means to belong to a place, to a community, to a history that is carried with us. It is strongly character driven rather than focused on an unravelling plot as such – although Maine does an excellent job of reminding us every so often that there is a mystery to solve.

Understand what you’re getting into, James had said. It goes deep.

The tensions between the landowners and tenants, outsiders and locals, are well drawn and you do sympathise with Hetty as she is pulled this way and that by the differing opinions and approaches of the people around her. The agents engaged by her partner Giles are absolutely insufferable and it is only her constant reluctance to stand up to them in any way that stops this getting a higher rating. I’m afraid I wish that Hetty had more of a backbone! You are constantly put in mind though of the destruction wreaked by ruling landowners and the impact the ‘sporting, shooting, fishing’ culture on the local economy and environment – a battle that rages today in terms of land distribution, ownership and use in the Highlands and Islands.

Overall I thought the novel was gorgeously described and totally plausible in its depiction of the relationships between characters – nothing saccharine or overwrought is ever indulged and whilst the denouement is not revelatory, it is pleasingly fitted together and provides a strong resolution.

Not as gothic as I thought it would be, but certainly a strongly atmospheric novel that really captures the Outer Hebrides in all their bleak beauty.

 

http://sarahmainebooks.com/

@SarahMaineBooks

Review: “The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

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Hardback: 304 pages

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Release Date: 25th May 2017

4 STARS

SET IN ESSEX, SUFFOLK, NORFOLK

 

A new perspective on one of Britain’s darkest periods of history. Before the Salem witch trials there was Matthew Hopkins – Britain’s self-appointed Witchfinder General. This chilling tale looks at what happened in the years between 1645 and 1647 when he held sway over East Anglia, through the eyes of his widowed sister Alice.

The Blurb: The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

Not much is known about Hopkins historically speaking, and even less about any family he had. This gives Underdown plenty of scope to create her characters and to bring a chilling humanity to Hopkins, a man responsible for the deaths of over 300 women – more than all previous witch hunters in the 160 years preceding.

I particularly enjoy historical fiction from a female perspective as so often their stories are overlooked. Sometimes it can create narrative problems for authors though – how do you keep a female character in the centre of action that would probably only have included men at the time? Underdown navigates this successfully in the main. She uses Hopkins’ early absences and the slow trickle of information about what he’s up to to great effect in building suspense. The reader realises the scale and horror as the protagonist does which serves to draw you in. We sympathise with Alice as she struggles to work against her brother, constantly being thwarted by societal convention and her brother’s cold and controlling actions. Underdown also does a good job of balancing a historical tone in her language without losing pace or sounding contrived. Alice comes across as relatable but of her time, which is great.

Without going into details (no spoilers here!) the ending was frustrating and the thing that stops this getting a higher rating from me. I understand why it unfolded as it did… I just found it unsatisfying and one of the moments where the above problem wasn’t dealt with as well as earlier in the book. There is also a supernatural element that’s intriguing but never really goes anywhere – I really wish the writer had pursued this more.

Overall an enjoyable read but not a favourite.

 

www.bethunderdown.co.uk

@bethunderdown

 

Review: “Sealskin” by Su Bristow

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Paperback: 276 pages

Publisher: Orenda Books

Release Date: 1st May 2017

5 STARS

SET IN THE HEBRIDIAN ISLANDS, WEST COAST OF SCOTLAND

 

I picked up this book after a relentless Twitter campaign by Orenda Books and their affiliated bloggers and I’m very pleased I did. It’s a beautifully written piece of magic realism that captures both the timeless quality of the selkie legends and the claustrophobia of small island living.

The Blurb: Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous, and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives—not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?

Based on the legend of the selkies—seals who can transform into people—evokes the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set.

I was wondering when this book arrived if it could live up to the rapturous quotations on the back cover – “exquisite” gushed Louise Beech, “haunting… and evocative” raved Off-The-Shelf Books, and they weren’t alone – the back cover of this novel is jammed with effusive praise for the dreamlike prose and skilful narrative. I wasn’t disappointed. I even recommended it to my sister who is a notoriously picky former literature student that I never dare push books towards.

The story follows a young fisherman called Donald Macfarlane who uses violent means to take possession of a young selkie girl who he sees dancing on the beach in the moonlight. So far, so traditional…

Bristow moves beyond the Scots and Norse selkie legends though and unfolds a tale of community and coming-of-age that sees Donald live with the consequences of his actions and it is this that makes the story so compelling. You’d think that you would struggle to empathise with a character who starts out so unsympathetically as Donald. He’s weak and selfish and whilst he struggles to find his place in the practical and often harsh community he lives in, this is not enough to redeem him in the reader’s eyes at the start of the book. It is testament to Bristow’s skill as a storyteller that you can be slowly won round as Donald seeks to make amends for his initial actions.

The language and imagery is gorgeous throughout the novel and it is easy to get swept away. I read the whole thing in two sittings – I was desperate to see the story unfold, yet it never felt rushed. That’s the real magic of it.

A beautiful book that really did live up to its hype.

 

http://subristow.weebly.com/

@SuBristow