He­bridean house of heartache

The Herald - Arts - - PAPERBACK - Sarah Maine Freight, £9.99 Re­view by Alas­tair Mab­bott

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

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