by Elisabeth Gifford
As Ruth and Michael struggle to convert a weathered old house on the remote Scottish island of Harris into a bed and breakfast, they stumble across the shocking remains of a child buried beneath the house. The bones are misshapen, legs fused together so that the skeleton resembles an infant mermaid. As Ruth puzzles over the origin of the child, the narrative flies back a century to the days when a recently ordained vicar arrives on the island to preach to his isolated flock and to pursue his interest in the folklore of selkies and other seafolk. In parallel quests to understand history and their place in the world, Ruth and Alexander must face the demons of their past before finding peace and healing in the present.
Alexander Ferguson, the 19th century vicar, was raised with a family legend that his family descended from seal men. It is this that motivates his quest to uncover new stories, hoping to solve the mystery of mermaids. An amateur evolutionary scientist, Ferguson tries to tackle the problem as a proper scholar would, but the ridicule he endures from contemporaries makes him reluctant to share his ideas. Ferguson’s distraction with selkies and devotion to being a good pastor makes him oblivious to the problems of the villagers around him, many of whom are being forcefully evicted by the lord who owns the island. He’s far from perfect, this Ferguson. His maid Moira is devoted to him, but were it not for the chapters told from her perspective you’d think everything was hunky-dory on Harris Island because all Ferguson takes note of is the pretty daughter of the Lord Marstone, his obsession with mermaids, and atmospheric passages filled with rich descriptions of the island’s natural beauty.
Still, Ferguson’s pursuit of an explanation for the selkie legend is interesting, and Moira’s observations help round out the world and create a breathtaking view of 19th century life on an isolated Scottish island. If only the 20th century story could be as bewitching.
Ruth is a troubled woman, making her narration somewhat unreliable. Throughout the book she hints at a terrible secret from her childhood, a traumatic event on which she blames all her problems. She is such a soup of misery and self-centered drama that it’s hard to spend long periods of time in her head. As a result of her often obsessive self-focus, Ruth doesn’t describe her husband or her friends very well, and they often seem like flat, weakly-realized shadows of real people.
I’m glad that I read the book, which so beautifully evokes the 19th century and the natural beauty of the Outer Hebrides, but I’m afraid the weakness of Ruth’s story sometimes soured the experience for me.
3 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Narcoleptic Sunday by Jeremy Haun and Brian Koschak
2012: The Queen’s Vows by C. W. Gortner
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: The Queen’s Lover by Vanora Bennett
2009: Contest #8: Diggin’ Up New Reading Winner
2008: New Moon (Twilight #2) by Stephenie Meyer