Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford is a tale of survival. Surviving the most terrible events and moving through fear and trauma to something approaching acceptance and, ultimately, healing.
I am very fond of stories with dual narratives, especially when they are as well-connected and full of twists and turns as this one. In the modern story, Ruth and her husband Michael have purchased ‘The Sea House,’ a rundown former manse on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Early in the renovations they find an eerie burial place under the floorboards, which prompts Ruth to explore the history of the house and its former inhabitants. The reader’s mind – like Ruth’s – will run amok with theories as to what has taken place there and it is through her searching that we are introduced to a previous occupant of the manse, the minister Alexander and his staff. He himself is on a scientific quest to discover the origins of the ‘Selkie‘ or seal people of local legend, having moved to the remote parish from Edinburgh. Religion and science are in conflict in Alexander’s time, as are the ‘old ways’ and notions of progress, personified in Moira, Alexander’s housemaid, as she begins to learn English in return for teaching him Gaelic and telling him some of the local stories about the Selkies. Alexander’s strength of character will be tested by the arrival of Katriona – his master Lord Marstone’s feisty daughter – and his faith in humanity by the demands his boss will make on the land and its people.
Secrets of the Sea House is a story of sensations: a touch on Ruth’s hand as she walks through the half-renovated house at night, the effects of sun, sea and sky on the islanders, their language and their ways, which the more recent arrivals can’t quite take in. Alexander’s descriptions of the island will encourage searching for images to confirm that – yes! – it really is that beautiful:
The whole view before my eyes seemed made entirely of air and water, the very land become without substance.
Secrets of the Sea House is also a story of how the things we bury do not often stay concealed forever. The traumas of the past must be reckoned with eventually. Ruth and Alexander’s searches for their own family histories are like two currents in the ocean, dancing through and around each other, both enticing and enthralling as they uncover their respective mysteries. It is rare to finish a work of fiction with the desire to jump right into every book on the bibliography provided, but this is a captivating tale, which brings often unexamined histories into the light. And while the personal histories resonate, the wider social background does too. The deft way in which Elisabeth Gifford brings her research into the tale underlines what a terrible thing it is to be forced from your land, not by war or terror – as with today’s refugees – but by the callous whims of rich men seeking more wealth. Moira, still mourning the loss of her immediate family, then has to witness the destruction of her community and extended family:
He left us to die one by one, and slowly, so that we could grasp how truly we did not matter in this world.
To see children, the old and the sick turned out of the houses and the roofs burned, knowing there is no point in fighting back because there is no justice for you and yours. As Ruth wonders what could have prompted people to leave such beauty, Moira gives voice to the dispossessed:
…how had it come to be that our people, who was born of this land and had lived in these islands for generations before time was remembered, were now gypsies to be chased away as worthless paupers.
This part of the tale brought to mind The Proclaimers’ song, Letter from America, which deals with similar themes. So here it is, as a soundtrack to this review and perhaps to the book as well!
I am not from Scotland, but I know that similar wrongs were probably done to my folk way back when, to see them end in Liverpool slums but never lose their love of fresh air and fields. It is a love that Ruth herself feels, contrasting with her memories of growing up in London with her mother before her untimely death – a possible suicide? – sends her young daughter spiralling through a network of foster homes and institutions. She heard her mother’s tales of the Islands and the ‘seal people’ and feels drawn to the house and its former occupants, as well as to their neighbours in the village nearby, as she begins to realise:
…braided into the old language were all the assumptions of a close-knit subsistence community, where sharing was a way of life.
But the proximity of all this history leaves Ruth feeling haunted by more than the ghosts of years past. It is her own troubled beginning that threatens everything she wants to build at the Sea House and that must be reckoned with before she can find peace. There is a delicate counter given to Ruth’s struggles by one of the ‘secondary’ characters in the book, neighbour Angus John, who returned from the Second World War but was not untouched by it. And it is in discovering her past and facing it that Ruth begins to heal the small girl she was, to reach the point where she can say,
I know no one is coming back from those days to say sorry for what happened. But I believe there’s a sweetness and a kindness in this world that infuses the morning with yellow sunlight.
A truth that has kept many generations going through war, famine, exile and the loss, misery and trauma that they bring. One that we must ensure stands today, however hopeless things appear.
Lazy beds above Scarista, photo by Calum Macnee