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Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Book review by GJ Williams

When Ruth and her husband pull up the floorboards of the old Scottish manse they are renovating and find a secret which has laid buried beneath for over a century they unlock a tragedy which ripped apart lives. Ruth, already trying to come to terms with her own past, becomes fixated on finding out the truth of the contents of the box. As she delves deeper she is forced to confront her own tragedy.

The reader is taken into the inter-winding tales of Ruth’s journey and the journey of a young curate and his maid who lived in the Manse in the 1860’s. Threaded into both stories are old tales of mermaids and selkies, the terrible history of island clearances and the universal need to know where you come from. The research behind the book is evident. This must be one of the few novels that actually has a bibliography at the back.

They say if an author can get you so close to a character that you cry for them, then they have captured you. Elisabeth Gifford did this for me – though the characters of the 1860’s resonated more with me. That said, you see the stories emerge through different people’s perspectives and Gifford is skilled in creating a very different voice for each one. Her capture of the maid, strong, proud and yet too locked into her social position to say what she really feels is the character who, for me, was the one who stays with you and gives the deepest feeling of what Scottish Island life and culture was really like.  

The pace of the book is good – everything moves along and pulls you through. Likewise, every chapter takes you to that ‘what happens next?’ questions. It is a book you keep reading and want to get back to when you have to put it down. All parts of the story are neatly wound up. Some have that too good to be true feeling, but by then you like the characters so much you want the good feeling you get. 

About the author

Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in England but evidently has a deep connection with the Hebrides now spending much of her time there. She has written articles for major newspapers and has qualifications in creative writing. She is married with three children.

Secrets of the Sea House is her first fiction novel. Her second novel - Return to Fourwinds - is on the reading list, and if there are any more – I will be reading them too.

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