In 1992 Ruth and her husband Michael buy an old and dilapidated house on the Hebridean island of Harris intending to renovate it and turn it into a guesthouse. It isn’t long after they start working on the house when they make a gruesome discovery. Underneath floorboards they find the old remains of a baby with its legs and feet fused together. It is a discovery that will awaken old memories for Ruth. Memories she has been trying to suppress for a long time; memories that can threaten her sanity and her future.
In 1860 Reverend Alexander Ferguson, newly ordained and filled with all the right intentions takes up his post on Harris. A fan of Darwin’s recently released theories and fascinated by the myths about Selkies and mermaids, the enthusiastic and innocent man has no idea that his time on the island will change his life irrevocably. The truth about what happened on that island and in that house will remain hidden for over a century.
Ruth has her own reasons for being obsessed with mermaids and Selkies. In order to uncover the secrets from the past she will have to take a close look at her own past and the pain she has suffered. It is a journey which could bring her the peace of mind she hasn’t known for decades or destroy everything she holds dear.
This is an interesting and very clever book. There are two stories in this book and both of them are equally powerful and fascinating. The connecting theme in this book is that of mermaid and Selkie myths. The main narrators of both stories, Ruth and Alexander Ferguson both have reasons to be interested in these myths. But, while Ferguson’s interest is mostly a result of curiosity and a quest for scientific proof, Ruth’s interest is mainly personal, emotional and painful.
When the story starts almost everything, except the location in which the story is set and the names of the main characters, is a mystery. And those mysteries are only slowly uncovered. Ruth’s quest to find out exactly what happened over a century ago - why there was a baby buried underneath the floorboards in the house she has bought - initially appears to be about uncovering a fascinating mystery. It only slowly becomes clear why both the discovery and what it might mean has such enormous importance for her. With every new bit of information about what happened in the past, Ruth is brought back to her own past and memories she’s been more or less successfully suppressing for decades; memories that may destroy her future unless she finds the courage to face and deal with them.
Surprisingly enough it wasn’t either Ruth or Ferguson’s voice that was strongest for me in this book. The character that really struck a note with me was Moira, Ferguson’s uneducated but very intelligent servant. Through her eyes we get the clearest picture of exactly what happened during Ferguson’s time on Harris. The stories about how the poor tenants were forced to emigrate to Canada so that the landowner would have more ground to graze his sheep was heartbreaking – especially since it is so very similar to the forced emigration from Ireland around the same time.
I really liked that this book managed to keep on surprising me. Revelations are slowly shared with the reader without giving away all of the secrets contained in the story until the very end of the book. The mix between myth and reality was fascinating, especially since the lines appear blurred at times. And while it is possible to have found a logical explanation for everything that has happened in the story by the time it ends, it is equally easy to hang on to some of the mythical aspects of this book.
This is a story about the things that haunt us and the power they can have over our lives. This is the story of one woman and one man who, separated by a century, each have to find their true path in life through dealing with the myths that have formed their pasts and personalities. Through a wonderful blend of myth, fact and historical conjecture combined with a fascinating story, Elisabeth Gifford gives her reader a story that will stay with them for a multitude of reasons.