Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: 24th March 2014
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 – a featured location in the novel
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.