Reviewer: Linda Hepworth
Corvus (Imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.) 7th October 2021
ISBN: 978-1838953218 HB
Scotland, 1949: Caroline Gillan and her new husband Alasdair have moved back to Kelly Castle, his dilapidated family estate in the middle of nowhere. Stuck caring for their tiny baby, and trying to find her way with an opinionated mother-in-law, Caroline feels adrift, alone and unwelcome.
But when she is tasked with sorting out the family archives, Caroline discovers a century-old mystery that sparks her back to life. There is one Gillan bride who is completely unknown – no photos exist, no records have been kept – the only thing that is certain is that she had a legitimate child. Alasdair’s grandmother.
As Caroline uncovers a strange story that stretches as far as the Arctic circle, her desire to find the truth turns obsessive. And when a body is found in the grounds of the castle, her hunt becomes more than just a case of curiosity. What happened all those years ago? Who was the bride? And who is the body…?
The italicized opening chapter very effectively sets the scene for the mystery which lies at the heart of this dual-timeline novel. Although dated ‘Fife, 1949’, it’s immediately clear from the haunting narrative that the voice belongs to a long-buried body, about to be exposed by the heavy rain which has been falling for days. ‘Find me, I whisper. Give me my name … It is time’. The second chapter is set in 1944, introducing Caro and Alasdair and revealing their plans to live and work in London when they marry after the war. However, by chapter three, it’s clear that those plans have changed because it’s 1949, they have a baby daughter and are living in a cottage in the grounds of Kelly Castle … only three hundred yards from Alasdair’s mother, Martha, not the five-hundred-mile distance Caro had envisaged would separate her from her mother-in-law. Her sense of isolation, despair and disappointment is palpable as she reflects that she barely recognises her post-natal self … ‘She missed capable and confident Caro, dashing around the country, lecturing to upturned faces in village halls, able to clean a carburettor or expound on Shakespeare’s plays equally well. She had admired that Caro.’ Can Martha’s suggestion that she should use her academic skills to archive the family records, do some research and maybe solve a family mystery, help put her back in touch with her old self?
There are so many aspects of Elisabeth Gifford’s latest historical novel which contributed to making it such a thought-provoking, satisfying and enjoyable story to read that it’s difficult to know which to start with! However, I think that what linked them all together for me was the skilled way in which she managed, through the dual timeline of the story, to not only gradually reveal the mystery which lay at the heart of the Gillan family and the identity of the body discovered in the grounds of the castle, but to illustrate the many parallels which existed between the historic and contemporary stories which were being told. Just a few examples of this include having a character in the 19th century who mirrored some of the struggles faced by women wanting to challenge society’s norms and expectations; the complex dynamics of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships (including how good intentions can all too easily be mis-interpreted!); the importance of sibling and friendship relationships; prejudice, racism and bigotry and reflections on the changing (and sometimes unchanging!) nature of issues surrounding social class and social inequality.
The frequent switches between timelines (the earlier one follows the story of Oliver, Alasdair’s great-grandfather) never felt confusing, instead I always felt that the author was using them in a controlled and assured way to weave together the different strands of the novel, simultaneously maintaining a sense of tension whilst gradually adding layers of depth to the developing storyline. She created characters in each of the timelines who, because they were all so well portrayed, enabled me to feel either emotionally invested in those I came to care about, or enraged by those whose behaviour, prejudices and bigotry caused such immediate, and lasting, damage to others.
Throughout the story I appreciated the powerful sense of time and place the author evoked, whether that was post-World War II austerity, living in a cold draughty castle or in a tenement, or working conditions in a 19th century factory. However, what made this a story which will remain in my memory was what I learnt about the manufacture of jute in Dundee and, because whale oil was essential to the process, the building of the Dundee Whaling Fleet and the consequent annual expeditions to the Arctic Circle, to forge relationships with the local Inuit communities and to use their native knowledge to hunt and kill whales. I admired the way in which she so effectively distilled her considerable research into this strand of the story to portray the various hardships endured by the crews of these ships, the ever-present threats they faced from the extreme cold (eg frostbite or the ship becoming ice-bound), of the crew’s reliance on the knowledge and help of local Inuit communities to track down the whales and yet their lack of respect for their culture. I also enjoyed the insights into the richness of Inuit culture, traditions and mythology which she included, as well as her vivid word-pictures describing the stunning beauty of the Arctic region. What was far less enjoyable to read, but essential to the authenticity of the story, were her at times graphic descriptions of the horrific barbarity involved in harpooning whales, and her portrayals of the openly expressed racism and bigotry of the time.
Although I don’t expect it from every novel I read, I always find a huge amount of extra satisfaction when I come across one which not only teaches me something new, but also inspires me to do extra research on a subject. This captivating, frequently moving story did both so I wholeheartedly recommend it, not just as an engaging personal read but also as one which, because of its wide range of thought-provoking themes, would make an interesting choice for reading groups.