Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

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Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A beautiful split-time story of love, coming to terms with the past and a healing hope for the future. It's beguiling, it's feel-good, it's a 6 out of 5.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1782391111

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Ruth has been raised in children's homes after losing her mother as a young child. Her mother always told her that she was a Selkie, one of the seal people and eventually her mother would return to the sea. Ruth prefers this version to the official death certificates: suicide by drowning. As an adult, Ruth returns with husband Michael to her mother's native Hebrides. This is a new start for them both in an old manse they're renovating. However during the works they make a gruesome discovery: the buried remains of a special child. This body has been there for over a century, since Rev Alexander Ferguson's time and, as the years roll back to reveal its origins Ruth realises this isn't the only surprise awaiting her.

Author Elisabeth Gifford was inspired to write this novel by an old letter to The Times that she unearthed from a clergyman who claimed to have seen a mermaid. Other shades of her life drifted into the literary melting pot (Elisabeth lives in an old vicarage and has a longstanding love of the Hebrides) to provide the setting for a tale that comfortably straddles the present and the past.

There is so much to this novel and yet it invites us in with its absorbing simplicity. Ruth is still hurting from her childhood abandonment and the mother-shaped hole in her life that even a devoted and much-loved husband can't fill. Her Hebridian quest is as much an attempt to touch her mother and identify her unknown father as it is to start a new life.

Meanwhile, back in 1860, Alexander is a freshly ordained curate worried about creating the correct impression and avoiding impropriety, especially where his maid is concerned: the wonderful Moira who, quite rightly, narrates some of the story herself. I don't have a maid (I'd end up cleaning first out of embarrassment about the mess!) but I am married to a newly ordained curate and Elisabeth has the descriptions of the lack of inner confidence and its effects on the job spot on.

The two time zones alternate, Elisabeth showing us similarities as well as contrasts. For instance jealousy knows no time constraints. Ruth becomes jealous of someone's happy childhood whereas Moira becomes jealous of someone who steals something that she always assumed was hers. Also there's a wonderful object lesson in not judging a historic character's personality from a single document. People have reasons that can't often be conveyed in a single signature, as we discover.

This is a maelstrom of a historical period for the Hebrides. The fact that their folk stories and ancient wisdom is taking a drubbing at the hands of the Victorian science surge is only part of it. We also read through the consequences of the land clearances and the crofters' brutally enforced migration. At the knee of an author who makes empathy easy, we feel some of the attitudes and the attendant horror and hopelessness relating to being in a societal class that aren't permitted near enough the social ladder to get on even its lowest wrung. There’s also an aristocrat who's a rather nasty piece of work but this isn't central casting, this is a nugget from life and, in the case of Lord Dunstone, a cruel attitude isn’t something to be kept for the poor.

I would say that if you like Tracy Chevalier or Karin Altenberg you'll love Elisabeth but that may put off those among you who aren't so keen. Shall we just say that if you like historical fiction with a modern twist you'll love Secrets of the Sea House? Anything this good deserves the largest readership possible and we readers deserve to be treated to novels like this from time to time too; symbiosis in action.

If you've enjoyed this and want to read more hist fict of the Hebrides in fictional form, we heartily recommend the beautiful Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg or, for something more recent with a dash of humour, Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie. For more from Gifford, try Return to Fourwinds.

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Buy Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford at

Booklists.jpg Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books of 2013.


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