SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE
Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Corvus RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Multi-generational stories about long-buried secrets and mysteries have always appealed to me; when I saw some friends recommend Secrets of the Sea House I knew I had to bump this one up the pile. I was rewarded with a haunting and satisfying read that more than lived up to the expectations other readers had generated.
When Ruth and Michael buy the Sea House, a grand but dilapidated old building on the isolated Hebridean island of Harris, they have big plans. A bed and breakfast is one, but mostly, they want to turn the house into a home for their hoped-for family. During the renovation, a shocking discovery is made. Buried beneath the floors are the tiny bones of a baby, its legs fused together, like a mermaid. Ruth can’t stop thinking about the bones and resolves to get to the bottom of the mystery. Who buried the bones? And why? As she asks questions, she comes across the writings of Reverend Alexander Ferguson, who in 1860 took up the parish on the island and lived in the Sea House. Reading his writing gives Ruth a perspective on island life at the time, and leads to more questions, not only about the buried baby, but her own past.
As Ruth discovers, life on the island in the 1860s was harsh and unforgiving, with the climate and terrain only partly to blame. A ruthless and greedy landowner would stop at nothing to build his ’empire’, while his tenants lived in make-shift houses, barely surviving and forever in his debt. Those who could not pay his unfair debts were sent away on ships, either to another island, and some as far as Canada. I could understand and identify the Reverend’s frustration and Ruth’s horror, for I felt it too as I read. Gifford painted a depressing scene with descriptions at the same time vivid and bleak. Her writing is emotive but considered – the bleakness is not overwhelming, as it could well have been, and instead the language and description delivers a haunting sense of place. The legend of the Selkie (seal-people) was cleverly woven into the story, adding depth and interest.
Infused in the story are themes of identity and belonging, of love and loss, and hope and despair. As Ruth tries to discover the identity of the ‘mermaid’ child she is led towards self-discovery and healing. Who was her father? What are her roots? Somehow, Ruth’s identity is tied up with the myths of the Selkie people, as was Alexander’s, and Gifford ties all the threads together well. I particularly enjoyed Alexander’s and his housemaid Moira’s stories – they were riveting. I liked the depth that their different perspectives added to the reader’s understanding – more than there would have been with just Alexander’s writing to go by. Alexander was somewhat removed from the troubles the islanders had, whereas Moira had been displaced and watched her extended family be displaced once more, with tragic results.
For me, it’s hard to go wrong with a story like this – a big house holding secrets, a contemporary protagonist committed to uncovering the secrets (and learning about herself along the way, and a historical narrative that beguiles the reader with its intricacies. If you like gothic-style stories like this, or you’re a fan of writers like Kate Morton, don’t miss Secrets of the Sea House. I loved it.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: Hot chips. Why? Sea, fish, chips … see where my reasoning is going?