Reverend Alexander Ferguson, naive and newly-ordained, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the Hebridean island of Harris. His time on the island will irrevocably change the course of his life, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after Alexander departs. It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child’s fragile legs are fused together – a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? Ruth needs to solve the mystery of her new home – but the answers to her questions may lie in her own past.
Based on a real nineteenth-century letter to The Times in which a Scottish clergyman claimed to have seen a mermaid, The Sea House is an epic, sweeping tale of loss and love, hope and redemption, and how we heal ourselves with the stories we tell.
Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She is the author of The House of Hope: A Story of God’s Love and Provision for the Abandoned Orphans of China and has written articles for The Times and the Independent and has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She is married with three children. They live in Kingston on Thames but spend as much time as possible in the Hebrides.
When LitFuse offered The Sea House for review, I jumped at the chance. Although I didn’t know anything about the author, Elisabeth Gifford, I love reading fiction by authors outside of the United States. They generally have a unique perspective that makes the reading experience even more meaningful. Then I got an email allowing for an opt-out of the review tour due to objectionable language and difficult subject matter. Now I really was intrigued! Instead of opting out I decided to give it a go and give you an honest review of her debut novel, The Sea House. So here it is —
Ruth and Michael are a young couple determined to bring an old manse on the wild coast of a Hebridean island back to life. Its transformation into a B&B is the focus of their life until the body of a deformed child is found buried beneath the floor boards of their home. The find affects Ruth deeply and she endeavors to discover the history and identity behind the mystery. With nothing more than a journal from a curate who occupied the house over 100 years before, Ruth embarks on a journey that will help her confront her own demons.
Gifford’s writing style is beautiful. Life in the Hebrides, both past and present, is vividly depicted. Her characters are complex and wrestle with real life trauma, guilt and questions of faith. The Sea House is not always an easy read. There are lots of difficult subjects explored — physical and sexual abuse, suicide, and depression among them. But I never felt overwhelmed by the emotions produced. Gifford always held out a glimmer of hope. Three points of view are presented, all told in first person. Ruth is a modern woman struggling with anger and guilt from childhood trauma, Moira is a 19th century maid with plans of revenge following the loss of her family and home, and Alexander is a 19th century curate who never feels good enough for the grace offered by his savior. The stories seem disparate at the beginning, but end up becoming a beautiful whole in the end. The setting of the Hebrides and the Sea House in particular serves as a character of its own, impacting the characters and speaking to the reader through its heartache and beauty.
I would not characterize The Sea House as Christian fiction. It is published by a secular publishing house and it contains language that can be deemed offensive to many. One character has an outburst that hit me like a slap in the face. But the language suited both the character and the scene. Also, while most of the characters have problems, only one really turns to God for answers. Alexander’s struggle with being good enough, doing enough, was wonderfully depicted. I also really enjoyed the examination of the evolution debate from the point of view of scientists and clerics contemporary with Charles Darwin. And while you may think the book is going one way, you may be surprised with the outcome of that examination. The legends of the Selkies and mermaids indigenous to the western islands of Scotland are fascinating and create a great framework for the story.
All in all, I liked The Sea House and would recommend it with the qualifications of profanity and adult subject matter.
Recommended: please note there is profanity and adult subject matter that may be offensive . This is not Christian fiction.
(Thanks to LitFuse and St. Martin’s Press for a review copy. All opinions expressed are mine alone.)