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The past intrudes into the present

13 November 2015

Peggy Woodford on two complex stories with shifts in time


Secrets of the Sea House
Elisabeth Gifford
Corvus £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70


Return to Fourwinds
Elisabeth Gifford
Corvus £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 


I HAD just read Marilynne Robinson’s Lila when I started The Secrets of the Sea House, and the difference in style was total — I moved as if from leather to loose-weave. Even though both novels were in a sense thematically similar, dealing with the profound effect of past events on the present and the slow release of the hidden or misunderstood parts of the central characters’ lives, the narrative styles could not have been more different: Robinson’s allusive and dense, Elisabeth Gifford’s expansive, with clearly marked shifts from past to present.

Gifford’s elegantly written novel is set in the Hebridean island of Harris, where Ruth and Michael have bought a grand but dilapidated building that was once the rectory and begun to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. As they investigate the floor, they make a discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house, and the child’s fragile legs are fused together — a mermaid child.

Immediately one thinks of the mermaid or “selkie” myth prevalent in the Hebrides; and Gifford’s book is fascinating on this topic, how the islanders mistook the invading Sami kayakers wearing seal-gut body-suits in their skin-covered canoes lying low in the water for humans with strange fish tails. A shift back in time to the house’s inhabitant in the 1860s, the Revd Alexander Ferguson, a young cleric in his first parish, will in the course of the novel reveal the identity of the baby.

Gifford relies heavily on setting to drive her narrative in both these novels, but as a device this can have its limitations. In Return to Fourwinds, two very different families are about to become in-laws: there is a romantic expatriate childhood in Franco’s Spain lying in the background of the groom’s, and extreme poverty in 1930s Manchester in the bride’s (the nightly hunt for bedbugs on the bedroom walls). Both these settings are richly evoked, but they aren’t enough in themselves to carry the narrative. The wedding is to be at the splendid house Fourwinds, but it doesn’t happen as planned, for reasons slowly revealed in the course of the novel.

“And there it was. The past always intruding on the present.” This is true in any life, but the narrative difficulty lies in integrating the leaps back and forward into the texture of both this novel and Secrets of the Sea House. Gifford dates every section to help the reader, but the characters themselves aren’t weighty enough to carry the complex stories.

She states in an afterword: “I wrote the two books in tandem over two writing courses, so they do have some similarity in themes.” This partly explains my unease: both books have the same feel: well crafted, but lacking in those fresh, unexpected insights that leave the reader blinking and wanting more.


Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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