When a frantic Justine runs away from Charlie Boy, she grabs only a few things in a leather satchel, his ill-gotten gains hidden beneath her clothing. Anxiously she boards a bus, terrified that he will have woken from his drunken stupor, in pursuit and in a punishing mood. It is an existence she can no longer endure, one of violence, unpredictable rage, and fear. Shaking and exhausted, she abruptly exits her bus when she notices the tiny, bucolic village of Kilmacarra with its rolling green hills and Stonehenge-like plinths that stand like sentinels against the sky: “When the living go to worship in Kilmacarra, they can’t ignore the dead.”
Surely this is a place to stop for a while, to gather her wits and rest before going further on the quest to escape Charlie Boy. Approaching the Kirk from the back way, she stumbles upon the church building where Michael, a man she believes to be the minister, is battling the particular demons that have plagued him since he and his wife, Hannah, made a fresh start on a troubled marriage with their two sons,
14-year-old Euan and preschooler Ross. A councilor, not a minister, Michael has accepted the duties of caretaker of Kilmacarra’s spiritual needs, his former passion for politics put aside in order to support Hannah, who is writing a romantic young adult novel set in the early years of Kilmacarra.
Scotland is on the cusp of change, a referendum soon to be put to a vote on independence from Great Britain.
The whole countryside shows signs of change, both political and environmental: wind turbines blossoming everywhere like an alien species, the village folk engaged in hot debate about the definition of progress, Michael and Hannah increasingly at odds over their opposing views. Justine may have made a slight miscalculation in her choice of refuge.
The village roils with conflict over allowing the wind turbines, whether to preserve the historical integrity of a village born centuries before or
to succumb to the hungry maw of progress and profit, with its promise of jobs and prosperity for all.
Though her weary soul does manage a short rest in Kilmacarra, outdoors among the standing stones that caught her attention from the bus, her first meeting with Michael as she stumbles into the graveyard of the church causes Justine to be wary of him, concerned that he is a bit mental. On her way out of town, headed for the bus stop that night, a sudden roadside accident leaves a teenage boy badly injured, the vehicle disappearing into the dark. Justine calls an ambulance and comforts him but runs away when it arrives. Unsure what to do next, Justine bows to fate’s intervention when Michael drives by and impulsively offers her a temporary position in his home as an au pair.
The girl is too exhausted to resist the opportunity for shelter.
Campbell beautifully manipulates both characters and colliding events: Hannah forced by necessity to accept the stranger in her home; Justine grateful for a warm fire, a cozy bed, and a little security; Michael growing ever more detached and unable to put his marriage back on track, all his efforts futile as Hannah draws father away. Justine, who has escaped a life of chaos and fear at least for a while, finds herself in the midst of a warring couple, unwilling to be drawn into their problems yet too exhausted to move on. There is something about Kilmacarra that feels like home to a young woman sorely in need of security--and certain that Charlie Boy will hurt her badly when he finds her.
The eccentric personalities who fill the cottages on this ancient landscape are passionate about the direction of their Kirk, fully-fleshed, colorful, and unafraid of conflict, a trifle nosy but endearing. Michael and Hannah wallow in domestic havoc while Justine retreats to her basement room in the manse, bonding with Ross and dreading the certain arrival of Charlie Boy, a monster shadowing her days like a waking nightmare. The past looming large, there is a reckoning of sorts for Hannah and Michael but especially
for Justine, an emotional rollercoaster culminating in a life-and-death collision beside the soaring stones that guard Kilmacarra.