Beautifully written historical fiction

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kateyb Avatar


I love historical fiction, am utterly intrigued by the Arctic as a setting for a novel and am totally sold on duel timeline stories. It was clear before I even opened this book that it would tick a lot of boxes for me.

I just didn't appreciate quite how many.

I loved everything about this book - the setting, the time periods, the gorgeous descriptive language, the characters, the mystery. Everything!

The main narrative thread takes place in 1949 where Caroline, Alisdair and their baby have moved to Alisdair's family estate in Scotland, Kelly Castle. They are living in a small cottage on the estate while Alisdair's mother, Martha, lives in the main building. However, when the estate floods, a body is discovered in the grounds of the castle and Caroline takes up the role of family archivist to work out who the body could be - with the suspicion that she is Alisdair's great-grandmother who seems to have been erased from the family records.

So far, so mysterious - and it is a mystery that is beautifully handled by the writer right up until the end of the story. I definitely wanted to keep on reading to find out the identification of the body and the solution - when it finally comes - is just perfect (no spoilers!)

Alongside Caroline finding her feet at Kelly Castle and building a relationship with her mother-in-law, we are taken back to the 1870s and 1880s and the story of Alisdair's great-grandfather, Oliver. This is a complex and vividly-imagined plotline with multiple candidates for the role of the mysterious great-grandmother - and a gloriously bleak trip to the Arctic aboard a whaling ship. I can't say more without giving too much away, but the movement from Victorian-era Kelly Castle to Edinburgh to the Arctic is so well done and absolutely absorbing.

There is clearly a weight of research sitting behind this book about life in the Arctic and on board the whaling ships, plus the various historical moments that the novel inhabits. However, this is always worn lightly in the novel - the times and places read as authentic at all times. Indeed, the descriptions of setting are lyrical and often beautiful.

Gifford has also created a range of realistic characters with very human flaws. From the moment we first meet Caroline, driving an American GI to his base during World War II, we know we are in the presence of a tough and resourceful woman. When we next see her, at Kelly Castle and cowed a little by recent motherhood, we notice the subtle shifting of her sense of self and become immersed in her story.

The relationship between Caroline and Martha is also explored in all its depths and complexities. I loved the shifting grounds of the daughter/mother-in-law relationship as both circle each other warily, neither in the wrong yet both causing micro-frictions that are felt deeply. Alisdair fades into the background as the mostly benign but ultimately unhelpful conduit - not that this matters as this is primarily a perfectly-observed novel about women and their relationships.

I'd recommend this to lovers of historical fiction - I defy anyone not to be caught up in this beautifully-rendered mystery and enchanted by the characters and settings. I read this in one sitting and felt bereft at leaving Caroline and Martha in the past at the end - although I'm not sure my heart could have coped with any more emotional upheaval once the true story of the body in the Kelly Castle grounds was finally revealed. This is a gorgeous book and one to be treasured.

Thanks to Readers First and Corvus for my copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.