Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

13th October 2013

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this newly published book ever since I finished reading it on holiday two weeks ago. Written by a fellow graduate of Royal Holloway’s Creative Writing MA, it is an elegant and sophisticated tale of the ways in which lives interact and the strong skeins of memory that tie us to the past.

The premise runs thus:

Scotland, 1860. Reverend Alexander Ferguson, naive and newly-ordained, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the Hebridean island of Harris. His time on the island will irrevocably change the course of his life, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after Alexander departs. It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. But their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child’s fragile legs are fused together – a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? Ruth needs to solve the mystery of her new home – but the answers to her questions may lie in her own past.

The narrative swings masterfully between 1860 and 1992, linking the nineteenth century PoV characters of Alexander and Moira with Ruth, who moves into the Sea House over a hundred years later. I was impressed with the ease of this dialogue; the chapters are interwoven beautifully and the pace at which the secrets of the book’s title are revealed is cleverly controlled.

There are several elements and themes that run through both time periods, strengthening the overall impact of the novel: a powerful sense of place, characters scarred by the events of their past, and of course the book’s central motif: the mysterious mermaid child.

It is clear from Gifford’s vivid portrayal of the Scottish Hebrides that this is an area of the world close to her heart. The setting provides more than just a backdrop against which the story unfolds; it is a physical part of the narrative, woven deeply into both plot and characterisation. By the end of the book, I almost felt as if I had seen the islands first hand, so richly had they been described. Not only are we drawn into the rugged, coastal wilderness, but we are engulfed in its sounds, its smells, its customs, which even today appear to be profoundly different to life on the mainland.

These remote rocks at the end of the world are home to a people rooted in the distant past. They carry their legacy to this day, a legacy steeped in tradition and myth, in the natural magic of peaty earth and seawater. Gifford, however, does not ignore the islands’ less savoury history. She brings to life the heartbreaking poverty inflicted upon natives by unscrupulous landlords, greedy for profit. The horror of the compulsory emigration scene is felt keenly by the Reverend Alexander, whose signature was required on the official order of eviction, and his maidservant Moira, whose family died due to enforced privation.

This leads me on to Gifford’s three key characters, whose individual stories are woven into a tapestry quietly epic in its scope. Ruth is deeply scarred by her mother’s death and her experience of being an orphan in care. Alexander is a rather confused young reverend, desperately seeking recognition in the eyes of the world. Moira (who I admit is my favourite) is a fiery young woman consumed primarily by two things: revenge on the landlord responsible for the death of her family, and her love for Alexander. Gifford’s decision to let both Moria and Alexander speak for themselves (Moira especially has a unique turn of phrase), serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of these two individuals and the disparate social classes to which they belong.

All three are united in their preoccupation with the Selkie people, the sliochd nan ron. For Ruth, the sea people are entwined with her mother’s identity and consequentially her own. Reading Alexander’s diary, listening to the island stories of Ishbel and the Seal Man and Angus John’s haunted spoons brings her a little closer to self-recognition and eventual acceptance of the pain of her ruined childhood. For Alexander, the seal people are an evolutionary mystery to be solved, a chance to follow in Darwin’s footsteps and to gain the recognition he feels he needs to consider his life worthwhile. Moira’s interaction with the Selkie myth is less clear. It figures less importantly in her mind than those things that are real and can be changed, such as her desire to murder Lord Marstone and her concern for Alexander’s well-being:

‘Sir, what if the seal stories are truly just stories? Would it not be for the best to give your brain some rest from all its striving?’

To which Alexander replies:

‘Moira, I know you are concerned for me […] but have you considered this? If my seal man is real, if he is here, living and breathing and walking on the earth, then how foolish to fail to do everything in one’s power to understand and perhaps even see such a marvellous being.’  – p212

I have already mentioned fable, in relation to Ruth, but Gifford’s use of these stories within the greater body of the novel was one of my favourite things about Sea House. Each is deployed carefully, in scenes where it will have the greatest impact. And each tale sheds light on the psychological states of the main characters and the trials through which they suffer…and strive to overcome.  They are part of the myth that underpins the novel.

The actual writing is assured, a fresh, clean prose reminiscent of Susan Hill. The narrative never dragged and I felt that the varied chapter lengths were tailored well to each piece of exposition. Steeped in a rarely depicted, haunting mythology, Gifford’s début is a moving and poignant novel about identity, and the challenges we face when, as adults, we must find our place in the world.

Highly recommended.

Secrets of the Sea House is published by Corvus.

Buy from Waterstones

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