A while ago, in what seems like another reality, I was on a train. I was complaining to myself about the terrible service – oh, little did we know!!! – and trying to get to my first meet up with 4 other lovely book bloggers.
To take my mind off the journey, I scrolled through Twitter and came across the announcement of Sally Magnusson’s impending new release. Excited I sent out an email asking for a proof , not honestly fancying my chances, as I was sure the whole world was probably asking too.
But the good people at Two Roads were so kind and within a week I had a copy in my grubby little mitts. (Which are obviously only metaphorically grubby! Wash your hands people!!)
And let me tell you bookish people of the world…it is a beauty!!
Beginning in 1856, we are introduced to Alexander and Isabel Aird , a young middle class couple living in Glasgow.
A doctor, Alexander is concerned with the health of the city, particularly the poor. A passionate champion of improving public health, he is following closely the ambitious scheme to bring clean water from the Trossachs to the people of Glasgow. It is his dedication to reducing cholera within the population that sees him accept the job of site doctor at the developing waterworks by the banks of Loch Katrine
Uprooted from her Glasgow life, Isabel finds herself isolated amongst in a strange new landscape; one which is being changed by the intense and relentless blasting of the surrounding hill side to create the series of tunnels and aqueducts needed to complete this mammoth feat of engineering.
Alone for much of the time, Isabel is also grieving. For since the beginning of their marriage Isabel and Alexander have lost seven children to still birth or miscarriage. When we meet Isabel she is carrying her eighth child. She has no hope left, and is waiting painfully for what she feels is the inevitable.
The couple are disconnected, both grieving but both internalising their grief. Alexander has his work to distract him but for Isabel distraction comes in a different, more unconventional and dangerous form…
Loch Katrine and the nearby Doon Hill are steeped in Folklore. They are the haunt of the fairies, the sithichean, and all the recent industrial activity is disturbing the ground and it’s secrets. So when a mysterious, old fashioned but rather charismatic man, going by the name of Robert Kirke appears in Isabel’s life alarms bells start to ring. When Isabel, listens wrapt to his strange story, she offers to help. But the price she is unwittingly agreeing to pay is far too high.
The strange friendship which springs up between Isabel and Robert is of deep concern to Kirsty McEchern, a navvies wife, who has become a house keeper of sorts to The Airds. She is the voice of reason, a pragmatic narrator in the style of Nellie Dean. She has an insight into the minds and marriage of the Airds, recounting the tale years after the event, trying to explain the inexplicable.
And with her own strong sense of tradition and folklore running alongside her day to day reality Kirsty is also the embodiment of one of the novels key themes. The juxtaposition of folklore and superstition with science and progress. Themes that run throughout the history and literature of the Victorian era.
Alexander and his social circle are the embodiment of the progress that is made in public health, medicine and engineering. It is a world that the grieving and unfulfilled Isabel tries desperately to reach. She is constantly rebuffed and discouraged on the basis of her sex.
It is the character of Isabel which is the very core of this novel for me. Her fight to be a mother, in an era when women were judged by their ability to bear children but obstetrics and women’s health, both physical and mental, remained a low priority. Her fight to be more that just a wife, to find purpose in her daily life and efforts to support her husband in meaningful and practical ways.
For me, a successful novel is one which shows a development of not just plot, but character. And Isabel is a key example of this. The Isabel we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel is very definitely not the Isabel we say goodbye to at the end.
Another key strength of the novel is it’s sense of place in both location but very definitely period in time. It feels like a Victorian novel. The themes, language and pace are all authentic, all reminiscent and evocative of that fast moving and strangely conflicted time in history.
The sense of Victorian-a is cemented by a parallel strand of the story, a plot line involving Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This thread reflects the key themes of the novel; juxtaposition of progress and tradition, women’s role in society, its attitudes to child bearing. It is a thread that is neatly woven throughout and comes to a natural conclusion at the climax of the novel.
Sally Magnusson has mastered the art of weaving stories around a series of facts and bringing them together into intriguing and thought provoking novel. It is a unique story, with a unique approach. Beautifully plotted and at times heartbreakingly poignant, it is one of my reads of the year so far.