Hebridean house of heartache
THE centre of gravity whose pull Sarah Maine’s characters can’t escape, Muirlan House is one of those fictional buildings that acquire a personality in their own right. It’s on a Hebridean island reached by a causeway which is only passable for part of the day and noticeably out of proportion with its surroundings. Although uninhabited for more than half a century, even in its dilapidated state it stands as a monument to inequality, to the power of the landowner over his tenants.
Maine’s novel follows the stories of two women living a century apart whose lives become entwined with Muirlan House. In 1910, Beatrice marries painter and naturalist Theodore Blake, whose father displaced tenant families to clear a space for it to be built. Coming from Edinburgh to spend the summer at her new husband’s island home, she starts to see another side to Theo. To aid him in his paintings of birds, he joyously shoots and stuffs them with no regard for their beauty or rarity. And his attitude towards the tenants is equally imperious and dismissive. Beatrice reluctantly comes to recognise that she has more in common with social inferior Cameron Forbes, son of the factor, whose spirited defence of the island’s inhabitants and wildlife Theodore has a surprisingly high tolerance for. Cameron’s politicallycharged rebukes skate so close to insubordination that Beatrice begins to wonder if her husband might be in love with him.
Flash forward to 2010 to find Hetty Deveraux, who has just inherited Muirlan House from her grandmother. Her plan is to renovate it and open it as a hotel, so she makes an exploratory visit to the island to see if the decrepit building can be saved, urged on by her domineering boyfriend and pushy property developers. Hetty is taken aback to find that the locals are unenthusiastic, however many jobs the hotel might create. A century after tenants were imprisoned for protesting the burning of their homes, the people are still suspicious of incomers with building projects backed by pots of money. Chief among those who want the estate left to the birds is James Cameron, whose opposition to Hetty’s plans is an obstacle to the obvious attraction between them. Matters are complicated further by the unearthing of a skeleton from beneath the floor, dating from Theodore and Beatrice’s time, which pushes Hetty deeper into a study of the house, her ancestors and the complex history of the community. With each discovery, she feels more involved in the playing-out of a century-old drama.
Even though Maine is switching constantly between the two time periods, the permanence of the land gives her a solid, elemental stage on which to enact the powerful passions and intractable dilemmas of her main characters. Tinged with melodrama and infused with a love of the wildness of nature, The House Between The Tides even evokes the transcendent beauty that Theodore Blake saw, with his artist’s eye, before disillusionment quenched his love of life for ever.
Sarah Milne’s novel evokes the transcendent beauty that Theodore Blake saw, with his artist’s eye, before disillusionment quenched his love of life for ever