"It is in you then, the sea, it's a part of you," laments twenty-seven-year-old Moira Stone as she sits next to Amy, her teenage sister who lies on her back in a coma in a hospital bed with her eyes permanently closed, "held forever silently beneath the surface." Wracked with guilt and regret, Moira tells of how her days are now spent in a white, west-facing house on an English coast with Ray, her landscape artist husband.
The accident happened so suddenly. Moira never imagined that her sister could fall from such a great height, nothing so brutal, with the gulls screaming, the sharp hard drag of her knees across the rocks, and "later the doctor plucking a muscle out of her skull."
Indeed, she was almost left for dead to slowly bleed to death on top of Church Rock.
Moira ultimately blames herself and is torn apart by the fact that she wasn't a more caring sister and more at hand when Amy was growing up. "I'd have bore you with far better grace and I might have enjoyed you if I had stayed in Wales." The problem was that she kept seeing her younger sister as a rival for her parents' affections: "I thought it would always be just us three – my parents, and me," she silently confides.
A straight-A student with a unique aptitude for science, her fragile existence is also thrown into peril when she obtains a scholarship and is eventually packed off to Lockham Thorpe, a lonely, overcast boarding school far away on the Eastern side of England. So begins the sad and bitter vigil of this young girl who must now try to find a way through the empty years that lie ahead.
Moira seems to ease into the steady rhythms of Lockham Thorpe, but the other girls frequently pick on her.
She eventually finds comfort in scientific study with only her memories from home to keep her company. She sporadically receives letters from her mother and the occasional card from her elderly neighbors who remember her birthday, out of sadness and perhaps also out of guilt. When Moira goes home to Wales for holidays, she never fits in
at the house or anywhere else, and she's probably more irritated than pleased to see little Baby Amy.
It is her exotic Aunt Til who, "like a warm wind from a southerly place," blows away the storm clouds and bitterness that seem to characterize much of Moira's life. Til, who believes in crystals and oils and the power of positive thought, talks of London and the theatre and beguiles Moira with tales of her busy life working as an actress in the big city.
Through Ray - a stranger whom she meets when she escapes for a night of fun with some of the girls from school - Moira begins to feel the secrets and half-truths that are buried deep within her bones. An intelligent and thoughtful adventurer and artist, Ray keeps in touch with Moira, writing passionate letters to her of his world travels. This life in Ray, this art and appetite, catch Moira from the start, especially the letters as he dares to write these things to a girl he barely knows.
Author Susan Fletcher beautifully traces Moira's "black-shaped sharp heart of guilt" as she's thrust into her own future, the small joys of her life balanced against the terrible weight of Amy's hopeless condition. Introspective, atmospheric and melancholic, the author skillfully manipulates the storms of Moira's later life with the grey restlessness of the natural world around her.
Without a doubt, the turbulent sea, "its waves high and gulls above and blow-holes hissing with rough water," is a symbol for the cruelty, sadness and remorse that has until now encapsulated Moira's psyche. In the end, Amy's accident seems to have taught Moira some hard life lessons about love, how we live our lives, how we grieve, and also how we hope.
Part of Moira's growth is her learning that life recovers and we carry on in spite of our losses and mistakes, especially when we let our passions and hatreds and deceitfulness sometimes get the better of us. This novel is about the power of life, with the turbulent sea that steadily pounds the Norfolk coastline and the isolated cliff-faces of Moira's home in Wales serving as an allegory for Moira's search for happiness and her need to ask for forgiveness for the way she once was.