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The Sea House    by Elisabeth Gifford order for
Sea House
by Elisabeth Gifford
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2014 (2014)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Sea House, Elisabeth Gifford takes her readers back and forth in time to tell two stories, both centered on the remote island of Harris in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. Characters in both eras reside in a manse dubbed The Sea House by the locals.

In 1992, we meet newlyweds Ruth and Michael, who have purchased the property and are busy renovating it as a holiday business, though with minimal funds. Ruth keeps busy drawing lizards for a book on reptile neurology and is also expecting their first child. So of course she's rather disturbed when the work on their sea room unearths an infant's bones.

Oddly the child's legs are fused together, which can occur because of problems in utero, a condition called Mermaid Syndrome of Sirenomelia. This incident brings back Ruth's personal demons. These come from apparent suicide of her mother by drowning, followed by abuse in foster care. Ruth's mother (who came from the islands) told her that her 'grandmother's grandmother was a seal woman ... Sooner or later, seal people always go back to the sea.'

In 1860, young vicar Alexander Ferguson lived in the Sea House as parish priest for the area - according to family lore, his ancestor was one of the selkies (mermaids or sea people). Alexander is fascinated with the possibility of finding one, and collects stories about them. This has made him an object of ridicule in the scientific community, but he persists.

Alexander took on Moira Gillies as a maid, after finding her starving and destitute. This was a hard time in the Highlands, with Clearances by landowners destroying many lives. Moira hates Lord Marstone, who owns the island and is reponsible for her family's eviction and deaths. When a young woman, Katriona Marstone, comes into Alexander's life, Moira is jealous, but Katriona's life is not the cushioned and luxurious one that it appears to be to onlookers.

Ruth's research turns up Alexander's notebook and she finds out more about his life. She also consults a local genealogist about her own family history. At the same time, the discovery of the baby's bones has made her question her ability to be a good mother, and her past comes back to haunt her with a vengeance. Elisabeth Gifford pulls all these plot threads together to reveal how these stories evolve and how Ruth finds healing through history. An intriguing and compelling read!

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