This first-time author writes with a delicate eye for detail. Her alternating chapters overflow with the sights, sounds, and smells of the Outer Hebrides, the secrets of small-village life, and the poignant confessions of the Reverend Alexander Ferguson, who lived at the Sea House in the 1860s. The voices of Alexander and his servant girl, Moira, reverberate through the ages, influencing Ruth and her husband, Michael, who buy the Sea House in 1992 with the intention of turning it into a bed-and-breakfast.
Originally a church manse, the decaying, crumbling Sea House has been empty for years. It’s not surprising, then, that Michael and Ruth discover a relic from the past: a jumble of tiny bones and a skull mixed in with a nest of disintegrating woolen material in the earth beneath the floorboards. The bones are of a human baby, but both legs are fused into one solid mass and oddly splayed out like a tiny appendage. Shocked at the find, Ruth wonders at the child’s mother and how the child actually came to be buried there.
In carefully wrought prose often stunning in its poetic beauty, the author has Ruth explore Alexander Ferguson’s papers and books. Gifford unfolds the contemporary sections of her tale in Ruth’s anxious, fractured voice. For Ruth, there’s an odd prickle of apprehension, as if the house were still “held by the night’s shadows.” Desperate to know more about the remains in that woolen blanket (“this poor, stunted mermaid baby”) but nervous about what she might turn up, Ruth begins her inquiries. Finding information proves difficult in a landscape that seems littered with the secrets of a long-buried past. The remains of the woolen blanket round the child leave her with the notion that someone a long time ago tried to care for her.
Amidst a young woman's angst and the sorrows of her lost, wounded love, Gifford draws us into her images: the inky blue evenings and dark isthmuses where everything brightens or fades “beneath a sky filled with huge dramas.” As we learn the truth about Alexander’s crisis of faith, we also discover much about Ruth’s shocking past. Ruth remains haunted by her memories of being raised in a children’s home, damaged by her mother’s loss, and by her time living in a decrepit council housing estate in London. She still hears the quiet lilt of her mother’s voice and her talk of their origins on these isolated, windswept islands where few people live, and where the scattered village of Scarista is the only town near the haunted Sea House.
Slipping us through time, Gifford beautifully intertwines past and present. Through the letters of Alexander Ferguson, we really get to know enigmatic, pale, red-haired, servant girl Moira, who comes to his house to cook and to clean. Alexander gives Moira—found half-starved in a ditch—boots and teaches her English. She tells him about her family, who succumbed to the “coughing disease,” but not before they were cleared off the land by greedy aristocrat Lord Marstone. The knowledge gained from Moira’s travails only adds to the Reverend’s bitterness and to his failures: of doing his sad duty while also failing to protect lovely, delicate Katriona Marstone from the dreaded wrath of her uncle.
In a story of romantic love—a love that steadily grows between Alexander and Moira while solidifying between Michael and Ruth—we learn much about the mythical siths and selkies, a niece fleeing an abusive, deranged benefactor, and a handsome, kindly Reverend who just happens to be obsessed by the news of the sighting of a mermaid, rumored to have washed up on the beach while still alive. Eyewitnesses attest to the existence of this “half-fish, half-human specimen,” and Alexander is convinced the creature might hold the key to some previously undiscovered branch of the evolutionary chain.
In a past littered with coverups and lost infants (and the search for the mysterious Selkie), Alexander thinks he has failed his parishioners and is haunted by his spiritual shortcomings. Ruth, meanwhile, searches for any books on the Selkie myth, “that odd little fable” that links her to her mother. The arrival of Michael’s brother Jamie and Jamie’s girlfriend, Leaf, ostensibly to help with remodeling the Sea House, seems at first to quench Ruth’s sudden claustrophobia and anxiousness. Still, like an unanswered question, the images of the dead infant remain at the very edge of Ruth’s thoughts.
While the heart of Gifford’s novel is the compelling mystery of the mermaid baby (in a revelation that is as beautiful as it is tragic), what really makes this novel such a memorable read is Ruth and Michael’s connection to the past and to Moira and Alexander. This adds a mystical, spiritual, almost sensual quality to the story in which the inner lives of the characters are suddenly made clear.