Beyond the vibrant Hebridean sky and the gorgeous midsummer half-light, Muirlan
House stands immense and dark against the streaked lead and crimson western sky.
Moving between the voices of two women--Hetty in 2010 and Beatrice in 1910--Maine’s novel is a simple dedication of trust to a landscape that encapsulates much of what
Muirlan House has come to symbolize over the last one hundred years. It is 1910, and Beatrice is ensconced in the relative peace of
Muirlan, a grand, crumbling mansion perched on the edge of anisland in the rural Outer Hebrides.
Beatrice is somewhat gob-smacked at her sudden marriage to talented Edinburgh painter Theo Blake.
Nothing in Beatrice’s experience has prepared her for the rugged grandeur of the
Highlands, or her hurried wedding to this handsome, debonair man. At first, the desolate island and Muirland House itself leave Beatrice transfixed as she tries to settle into the role as the
mistress and contented wife, a role she’s forced to play unsteadily in the face of Theo’s mysterious indifference. As she stretches her eyes across the strand to Muirlan Island, she begins to see how her husband’s paintings speak of space and of light, of limitless horizons and “a restless landscape” that resonate with her present mood.
For Theo, Muirlan is a refuge, a place of wild beauty, a special landscape that serves as an ever-changing color palette and an inspiration for his artistic world. Theo is an established figure, confident of his position in society. At first, he’s completely enamored of lovely Beatrice: “this was where he belonged, where he had first found that compelling absorption, that sense of purpose, the intense, slow burn of passion.” He’s certain that Beatrice will offer him a new beginning and a new hope. As their life together gradually unfolds, Theo’s candid musings will steadily illuminate a lost Hebridean love, an enigmatic woman who always appears in his paintings.
Running from the intrinsic complications that come with Theo’s perfidy, Beatrice is drawn to handsome Cameron Forbes.
As he talks to her passionately about the island’s bird-life and the rights of the tenant farmers, something about him sets him apart from the servants Beatrice has known at home and in Theo’s Edinburgh house. Beatrice wonders at Cameron’s relationship with Theo, who seems to use him as some sort of dual secretary/farmhand. Piece by puzzling piece, Beatrice begins to put together a picture of her husband’s past. At first she thought she had learned only the basic facts of Theo’s existence, the rest hidden behind “an impenetrable reserve.”
In 2010, Hetty’s parallel story sheds light on Beatrice’s fears and her expectations. Hetty’s sudden inheritance of Muirland House from her grandmother has come as a shock. In the low evening glow, Muirland House has an almost mystical quality, yet the illusion seems to collapse in the sharper light of the morning. The lawyer acting as her grandmother’s executor has told Hetty that Muirland had been empty for many years and will need work: “It’s just a shell, pillaged and empty.” But as Hetty ponders the stillness of abandoned Muirland--a house
where she feels herself to be a trespasser and an intruder--she begins to see her trip North and her ownership and restoration of Muirland as a watershed and new beginning where she can finally take back control and refocus her energies.
The discovery of a dead body under Muirlan’s rotting foundation reluctantly plunges Hetty into Theo’s ancestry, forcing her to look for clues to his past in his paintings: “there, standing tall on a ridge...the painter’s eyrie, silhouetted against the complex hues of the western sky.”
Through one painting in particular the connection is made, from Hetty to Theo and then to Beatrice. As the investigation into the identity of the body heats up, Beatrice’s sadness makes
Hetty's own ache of sadness tighten. Beyond the deep shadows and the fading half-light, Hetty sees the century-old images of the past clearly before her. As she
grows ever more reliant on the locals for help in the complicated process of restoring Muirland, she
becomes unavoidably linked to Muirland’s enigmatic history.
The story flows along in a style typical of the novels of Lucinda Riley and Kate Morton. Maine is a master at creating typically British scenes where numerous secondary characters seem intent on keeping Theo’s secrets at bay, both from Beatrice and from Hetty. The novel has all the restrained weaving of the elements: the plight of the tenant farmers, the ache of forbidden love, and the intrinsic complications over balancing environmental concerns against the steady encroachment of industry. Theo’s paintings almost act like a looking glass, reaching across the ages so that the past is laid over the future and the future is laid over the past. This view is astonishingly real as the unsuspecting passions of Beatrice and Hetty and Theo inadvertently collide beyond the realms of time.