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Book Review: The Sea House

By (April 20, 2014) No Comment

The Sea Housethe sea house cover

by Elisabeth Gifford

St. Martin’s Press, 2014


Most creatures of myth (faeries, gnomish space aliens, centrist Republicans) are by their very nature temporary guests – that’s their whole point: they arrive, they change the lives of a few humans, and they leave, and it’s their passage itself that becomes the story, to such an extent that in many myths the cautionary point arises specifically if the myth-creature attempts to stay. The key is the longing – we only miss them when they’re gone.

Anyone who’s ever visited the freezing-cold, seeping-wet, wind-blasted, godforsaken, benighted knobby promontories that constitute Scotland’s Outer Hebrides will know already that longing is practically the national pastime of the place – mostly longing to leave. Almost the whole of the place is composed of bleak, frigid stretches of beach, and while a person is walking along those beaches, chilled to the bones, it’s not an uncommon thing to see sleek, black heads poking out of the water just beyond the shallows, black heads with huge, expressive eyes that watch beachcombers with obvious curiosity.

The sight of those bobbing seal-heads has been a fixture of seacoasts all around the Northern Atlantic, and it’s given rise to an extensive mythology of seal-folk. That mythology is the springboard of Elisabeth Gifford’s earnest and often enchanting debut novel, The Sea House. The novel is a wistful thing, its narrative split along parallel tracks: in 1860, the Reverend Alexander Ferguson is appointed to the isolated Hebridean island of Harris, where in addition to tending to his new parish, he’s also free to pursue interests in natural history – specifically, the natural history of the selkies, the seal-people; and in 1992, a young couple named Ruth and Michael buy the Sea House, a dilapidated great house overlooking the water, which they plan to renovate and transform into a bed & breakfast.

The narratives run parallel, but Gifford very expertly intertwines them. In the Victorian era, we have Alexander Ferguson, his imagination fired by new discoveries like Archaeopteryx, struggling to fit the selkie-fables of his new home with the cutting edge of new science (“You’re a man of great faith, in your mermaids, in your God, but truly, I am puzzled by you clerics,” one complacent character tells him, “You do see, don’t you, that once one has read Darwin, one can no longer believe in the account of Creation given to us in Genesis?”):

Darwin had had enough faith to predict this missing step in the process of transmutation, and in time the evidence had finally proved him right. But my own poor theories remained just that, nothing but faith and speculation. It seemed to me that I could make no further progress until I had settled in my own mind whether my sea creatures might be men evolved back into the sea, or some primordial type of sub-human, somewhat like the various families of higher primates.

And alongside such groping inquiries are the contemporary scenes, in which Ruth and Michael are horrified to find a baby’s skeleton buried in the Sea House’s basement – a skeleton whose leg-bones are fused together into a long – one might even say selkie-like – tail … seemingly just the kind of physical proof young Alexander Ferguson had been seeking a century before.

Gifford very effectively complicates both her parallel plots, and along the way she frequently indulges in loving and quite lovely descriptions of her blighted setting:

The clouds were curdling to lilac as I got off the bus and walked up to the Sea House. The low light raised shadows across the hillsides, revealing the corrugations of old potato beds, vast expanses of swirling rigs and ditches that must have taken hundreds of hands to dig out. Now, there were only a handful of crofters and their houses left across the empty machair grassland. I wondered just what had occurred to make the people leave such a beautiful place.

The Sea House is a remarkably assured debut, and it tries hard to wear its signature incredulity as a banner rather than a blot. Both Ruth and Ferguson have complicated personal histories with the selkie-mythology, and Gifford keeps her focus relentlessly soft and warm. Her prose is as smooth and welcoming as that of a seasoned professional, but when she steers her narrative away from exactly the kind of scientific awareness that the Reverend Ferguson pursues, she places herself firmly in the selkie-camp, as it were. It’s no accident that the modern-day sections of her book aren’t quite modern enough for DNA analysis, but even if those segments had been set in 2016, I get the strong sense it wouldn’t have made a difference.

She opts for a sweet, sentimental story, and she tells it quite well. The Reverend Ferguson would have found it frustrating, but the large readership Gifford very much deserves won’t object at all, I hope.