Title: The Sea House
Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Length: 308 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼
The Selkie man made straight for the shore and sat down near the hissing surf. … The ocean around him was out to entice that morning with twenty shades of blue and green, but he sat and gazed far beyond, where the sea dipped over the curve of the earth, beyond where the boldest fishing boat had ever traveled—to a place where Ishbel could never follow him.
But he could not go back there. Ishbel had hidden away his Selkie skin and she meant to keep it hidden away.
Ishbel was not cruel to keep him. She knew then that the Selkie man loved her. He would sing her songs in a strange piercing voice that Ishbel knew were for her, and yet day after day he made his way back to the shore and sang quietly, sadly, to the sea. (69-70)
As they renovate their seaside house in the Outer Hebrides, Ruth and her husband Michael discover the remains of a “mermaid” baby buried under the floorboards. Shortly thereafter, Ruth discovers that she is pregnant. She attempts to discover the child’s identity even while her pregnancy forces her to come to terms with her own traumatic childhood. Woven between Ruth’s narrative are those of Alexander Ferguson, the reverend who lived in the Sea House around the time the “mermaid” baby was interred there; and of his maid, Moira. Alexander is determined to find evidence for the existence of selkies—seals that, according to local mythology, could remove their skin and become human. The orphaned Moira is equally determined to make the local landlord, Lord Mastone, pay for his crimes against her people.
For the first two thirds of the novel, these timelines work decently well together. Ruth’s begins in the 1990s (rather than the present-day) for some arbitrary reason, but they still make a kind of sense together since Ruth is trying to unravel a mystery that occurred during Alexander’s time at the Sea House (1860).
The narrative structure reminded me a lot of The Book of Speculation, though I enjoyed that one more.
But I really picked up this book for the selkie and mythology elements. They seemed to have great promise, but then just petered out in the last third of the book.
The most obvious problem was that Gifford solved the mystery much too soon. She left fifty pages or more to resolve everything and tie everyone’s story into neat little bows, and I lost interest pretty quickly after that. I didn’t care enough about Alexander, or even Moira, to want that kind of resolution.
The problem at the heart of the novel, though, was that it was trying to cover too many things. In the modern narrative, for instance, Gifford brings up: Ruth’s emotional and psychological problems that sprung from the loss of her mother at an early age; her mother’s struggle as a single parent in the 1960s; the possibility that she and her mother were descended from selkies; her half-hearted efforts to discover more information about her mother; her fears about becoming a mother herself…and on from there.
And that’s to say nothing of the weighty issues she raises in the Victorian timeline. (She tried to deal with Anglo-Celtic tensions a lot in both timelines, in particular the persecution of the Gaelic-speaking islanders by the cruel Lord Marstone as described by Moira. But she could have filled a whole book with that subplot, and so—mixed in with the selkies and mermaid babies and Ruth’s problems—it feels unfinished and shoehorned in to the rest of the story.)
As characters go, I felt that Ruth was a much better character than Alexander, and thus more interesting despite her unexciting plot. Moira was decent and somewhat rounded as well. Alexander fell flat, though. I didn’t buy his development and never felt I understood (or cared about) him. Honestly, the Victorian story could have ended after the mystery had been cleared up, leaving Ruth plenty of time to resolve her own issues. That would have made a much stronger novel, in my opinion.
But having said all that, I will give Gifford credit. Her prose was beautiful and haunting in places, and she did a great job of painting the landscape of the Outer Hebrides. The strongest part of the novel was its sense of place.
The first day we sailed out on the ferry from Skye to Harris, I fell in love with the Minch. The evening was beginning to thicken and turn blue, the outline of Skye behind us nothing more than inky smudges, dark isthmuses sliding past each other as we pulled away. A low light filled the surface of the sea, glass peaks of jade rising and falling. …
Outside, a fierce wind blew across the deck, huge layers of cloud split against an apricot sky. I pulled my coat tighter and let the wind scour the skin of my face cold and clean. Ahead, our new life, a white house in front of a wide beach, the wind howling in from the Atlantic; I saw the children we’d have one day, those bright shapes tumbling in and out of the front door; and down on the beach, a boat ready to explore the wide plains of sea. (123)
I also enjoyed the short selkie story about Ishbel and Finlay towards the beginning, which Alexander transcribes for another character. If only selkies had had a real role to play in the novel.
I was promised selkies!
Gifford did a good job portraying poor Ruth’s anger, confusion, and despair over her childhood as well. I won’t say mine was nearly as bad as Ruth’s, who moved from foster home to foster home and finally to a group home, but I do understand the kind of emotional pain and bitterness that Gifford described so well:
All those years, I’d worked so hard not to see her, that girl from the home; to forget her, deformed somehow by what she’d seen and done and been.
And yet she was just a child. Not even grown. All that had happened to a child.
Something cracked in my chest and pity began to seep out. She hadn’t done anything wrong. And she was so, so lonely. (194)
Passages like the one above were why I wished the post-mystery narrative would revert to Ruth and her struggle. Alas.
A few more revisions probably would have made this a truly excellent novel. It either needed to be longer, or some things ought to have been cut—like Ruth’s brother-in-law and his girlfriend, for example. Some of the characters ought to have been explored and developed in more depth, such as Alexander’s character. And though the mystery was interesting, it felt somehow detached from the overall plot.
There was also a lot of British slang scattered throughout. I don’t think that books need to be “Americanized” for stateside readers—and I didn’t exactly struggle; what slang I didn’t already know, I mostly figured out via context clues—but I’ve also read plenty of British authors who don’t rely quite so heavily on British-specific English.
So I can only give this one three-odd stars, even though I really, really wanted to love it.