A lot of people must go home from a summer holiday on the Scottish islands thinking, ‘I must write a novel about the Hebrides’. It’s a cliché, and a tempting marketing opportunity. I can imagine that publishers might brush aside their doubts about publishing a rather average novel if it’s set on Skye or Mull or wherever, thinking ‘This’ll be good for the holiday trade’, or ‘This’ll get the romantic Americans’, or (topical!) ‘This’ll mop up the Outlander fans’. I say this having read too many irritating novels about incomers settling romantically and adventurously into Scottish island life, with no idea of the reality of living there, its history, or the hardship in making a living. I need realism in my romantic escapism, so that I can believe in it, and I have high standards for non-Scots writing fantasies about Scotland. Freight Books has, thank goodness, made no such mistake in publishing Sarah Maine’s first novel, Bhalla Strand. It is a galloping page-turner, and a beautifully constructed novel of parallel mysteries and tangled island history.
I have minor gripes about occasional typos, and the misleading blurb, but you won’t notice those once you begin reading. The story is told along two timelines, a hundred years apart. In our time, Hetty inherits Bhalla House, a dilapidated mansion on a Hebridean island built by her great-grandfather, whose son Theo Blake was an important Edwardian artist. But bones are discovered under the decaying floorboards, and a mysterious vagueness about who owns the land now. One hundred years earlier, Beatrice Blake is brought to Bhalla House by Theo, her new husband, and struggles to understand his connection with the factor’s son Cameron. Theo is struggling to come to terms with the death of his first love, and his feelings for Cameron. Cameron is trying not to be too socialist about land reform to Theo, whom he respects as his father’s employer, and struggling with his feelings for Beatrice. What Hetty uncovers in her increasingly desperate attempts to find out the truth about the estate, Theo Blake’s life, and the ownership of the land, accelerates her growing feelings of irritation with her enjoyably arrogant City boyfriend Giles, who is blithely bringing in developers and marketers to persuade Hetty to redevelop the estate as a luxury hotel and spa. Art dealers, the crofters and schoolchildren using an abandoned cottage are clamouring for Hetty’s attention and her support, when the battle for Bhalla House is unexpectedly taken over by the elements.
The emotional tugs and structural patterns of this novel are excellently handled. Sarah Maine respects historical norms of speech and how her characters would have behaved. The slight slippages that purists will sniff at will not worry readers accustomed to Downton Abbey and other modern retellings of the past. Her dialogue is clean and believable, and the story is gripping, all the way through. I really enjoyed the comic relief from the ghastly Giles and pushy Emma, and I thrilled, with a slightly grumpy sense of having been pushed into it, to the growing attraction between Hetty and the modern Cameron who knows much more about the collapsing house than he ought to. The use of haybags for urgent romantic interludes is obviously a genetic predisposition across the generations. Sarah Maine shows very convincingly how centuries-old land reform politics are still relevant now, even if the land is being saved for birds rather than crofters.
Sarah Maine, Bhalla Strand (2014, Freight Books), ISBN 978-1-908754-42-4, £8.99