|Oct/Nov 2016 Reviews & Interviews|
The House Between the Tides
Profile Books. 2016. 389 pp.
ISBN 978 6029 140 2.
It is 1945. We see a boarded-up house, its last contents burning on a shore-side bonfire, and a woman, now an outsider on this Hebridean island, is filled with childhood memories as she watches the remnants of that life go up in flame.
It is a nostalgic, sad beginning for this book. And 60 years later the discover of human bones in the ruins of this once grand house becomes a puzzle drawing its new owner into the lives of her ancestors and stopping short her tentative plans to rebuild the house as a luxury hotel and executive retreat.
Now, in the 21st century, Hetty (Harriet Deveraux) has inherited Muirlan House and its land, and she is still recovering from the death of both her parents in a car accident when she travels to Scotland to see it for the first time. She is shocked by its dereliction, and her visit begins disastrously—not only because of the just-discovered human remains buried under the floorboards. Her first meeting with James Cameron, whose family have a long history of association with the island, is not propitious either, although her negotiations with him are to become increasingly necessary.
Hetty's great-grandmother Emily was half-sister to the second owner of the house, Theo Blake. In 1919, Theo brought his new young bride, Beatrice, to live on the island. And it is Beatrice's story, alongside that of Hetty, that this book follows, moving backwards and forwards in time to gradually unfold the mystery of the bones. That mystery, however, lies buried in the complex interweaving of the island's history and the lives of its small, close-knit community—families whose lives have been closely linked with the owners and inhabitants of Muirlan House for several generations in both good and bad times.
Beatrice's husband is an artist who left the island some time earlier for reasons he will not disclose to her. His changed behavior on his return; his strange closeness to Cameron Forbes, the son of the factor who farms the estate on Theo's behalf; and his unfeeling passion for shooting rare birds who nest on the island so he can add them to his taxidermy collection and paint them—all threaten their marriage. Beatrice's first feelings of pleasure at the beauty and the peace of the island are also marred by the hostility some of the islanders show towards her and her husband and her ignorance of its historical origins.
Hetty, meanwhile, is resisting the pushy assertiveness of her partner, Giles, whose business associates have big, expensive ideas about what she should do to develop the house and the island. They are full of assurances the project will bring work to the island and benefit its people, and that extra financing can easily be arranged, They seem well on the way to taking over the whole project, and Hetty's uncertainly about James Cameron's honesty and his own plans for developing the island only make things more difficult for her. As Hetty spends more time on the island, however, she learns more of her family's history there, and she gets to know some of islanders and begins to understand their resistance to her plans.
This is a complex plot, but Sarah Maine handles her book's many themes and characters very skilfully. For a first novel, Maine's book is impressive. I found it absorbing reading, and apart from my own occasional problem keeping the two Camerons from two different eras distinct, it was easy reading with a mystery to unravel, a Scottish island to explore, loves, hates, betrayals, and family secrets to be revealed.
An enjoyable, well-written, imaginative, and satisfying read.