Friday, March 21, 2014

"The Sea House" by Elisabeth Gifford

“The Sea House” is about the power of past events and forgotten people to influence lives in the present.

For her tale of interplay between what has happened and what will, author Elisabeth Gifford developed three voices.

There is the Reverend Ferguson, living in the late 19th century, who represents the English presence in Scotland while dramatizing the struggle to reconcile community mythologies with the cold, hard facts of science.

There is Moira, his servant at the parish, who stands for all things Gaelic and local to the piece.

Finally, there is Ruth, living in the 1990s. She has returned to the village of Scarista, where she and her husband are opening a bed-and-breakfast (The Sea House) even as she is pregnant with child. Orphaned too young by her mother's apparent suicide, Ruth has not made her peace with the world yet.

The setting is the Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, an outpost facing the cold North Atlantic, off the northwest coast of Scotland.

All three characters are tied up with the local legend of the “Selkies” or mermaids.

Reverend Ferguson believes Selkies exist, existed at one time, or evolved into early generations of the home population. He is trying to prove this through the dictates of scientific investigation, that rare man of the cloth with one foot firmly planted in the empirical world – a Spinozan, reconciling faith and fact.

When Ferguson seeks help in his endeavors from a contact at the University of Edinburgh, he is deemed, “too ready to give credence to the fanciful tales of fairies and legends held by the aboriginal peoples of the Western Islands in their state of ignorance.”

Ruth, for her part, is haunted by the idea that her mother, who claimed mermaid ancestry, committed suicide because of an inbred desire to return to the water.

“How could she do it,” Ruth asks herself in a moment of introspection, “let herself slip away into the dark water? Couldn't she understand that when a mother takes her own life, she reaches out a hand to take her child with her? That cold, white hand reaching up from the water, willing me to slip away with her.”

Moira, as homegrown product, naturally claims Selky lineage.

In getting the Sea House up to snuff, the newcomers discover a small chest with a baby's skeleton inside. The infant's legs are fused together like a mermaids, a fact that unsettles all manner of things in Ruth's troubled soul and prompts a search for further information.

Ruth discovers that the uprooting of the original “crofters” on the islands in the prior century had forced a “complete break in the village's timeline.”

The unfortunate crofters practiced subsistence farming on the rough and rocky Scottish highlands and outer islands under the tutelage of English aristocrats who owned the parcels from which they squeezed a living.

None of this is discussed in the story. Gifford writes her big history small, personalizing it. It is enough the reader know that a good and harmless people were uprooted and that the part of the culture they represented was destroyed in the process.

Here, Moira provides a Gaelic-tinged account of her cousin Annie's life.

“She and her husband had thrown together a small house made from rocks taken from the shore, but the only bit of earth left for the new squatters was a boggy and raw land. The children's feet did sink into it, down at the end of their house where the cattle should be kept-- not that Annie had herself a cow. They never had time to let the floor harden before they must live in there, and no one had the heart or the strength to get up a ceilidh to dance the floor hard and pack down the earth in the old way. The bairns [children] were playing a jumping game to see how far they could sink down in the mud until Annie gave the boys a slap – something I had never seen her do before.”

Gifford's research is nicely embedded into the fabric of the story so that it does not seem like research at all. She writes well and evenly throughout, the highpoint being an evocative and haunting account of one village's demise in which Moira and the Reverend bear witness and play a part, respectively.

Ruth's persistence, or mere presence perhaps, coupled with the stubborn regeneration of myths that sustain a scattered and dislocated people's identity, drive the story from two different places in time, seemingly seeking each other out in spite of history's attempts to obscure the connection between them.

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