Precious and Fragile Places: Sally Zigmond Digs into Sarah Maine’s Multi-layered Novel, Women of the Dunes

Women of the DunesSarah Maine’s historical novels cover a variety of periods, with Scotland at the forefront as setting, although other countries known for their wild and rugged tradition feature as well, notably Canada, where Maine grew up.

Maine’s first novel, The House Between Tides (Freight UK / Atria US, 2016), deals with the discovery of a body in an abandoned house on a remote Scottish island. This event becomes the pivot for understanding what took place in 1910 and 1911 between the former owner and his young wife. The novel features dual timelines; a distant relative of the couple comes to the island with plans to build a luxury hotel and is confronted with hostility from the islanders – as was the earlier owner’s wife.

Beyond the Wild River (Hodder & Stoughton UK / Atria US and Canada, 2017) opens with the murder of a poacher on a Borders estate. The action then moves, five years later, to northern Ontario. The novel uses the fertile ground of Victorian hypocrisy to explore themes of justice and bigotry. The family that owns the estate visits the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago – a World’s Fair which coincided with the Great Panic of that year when the US economy almost collapsed. The ethereal ‘white city’ is made of straw, whitewash and gold paint, illustrating that what is portrayed is sometimes a parody of the truth.

Which brings me to the central theme of Maine’s latest novel, Women of the Dunes (Hodder & Stoughton UK and Commonwealth / Atria US and Canada, 2018). What is historical truth? How much is forgotten, manipulated and muddled? How do facts blur into rumour, lies and legend over time?

Women of the Dunes focuses on three women on the wild and rugged Atlantic coastline of Scotland. The novel opens in the ninth century AD, with monk Odrahn standing alone on a rugged headland as the sun rises. He watches in trepidation as a sail emerges from the dawn mist. To his horror, it bears all the hallmarks of a Viking vessel. It turns out to be not an invading ship, but a small craft.

So we meet Ulla, a pagan, fleeing her husband together with her adulterous lover, who is close to death. Does this heathen woman accept God’s power to save her lover or does the Christian monk defy his religion and heal the man regardless? When the lover dies, who is the murderer? Did Ulla bear a child and, if so, which of three men is the father? History is lost but still lingers as present-day folklore.

The second timeline occurs in the late nineteenth century and concerns the wealthy Sturrock family, who acquired the estate following the Highland Clearances, the baron’s two adult sons, the local priest, Oliver Drummond, and Ellen, a housemaid.

The third timeline, that of the present day, is the key to understanding both the mediaeval tale and the Victorian events (which include the murder of an unidentified man) when Canadian-born Libby, an archaeologist, arrives in Scotland to oversee an excavation on the headland. She has her own private reasons to be involved.

As readers become engrossed in the present-day story of love and hatred, Women of the Dunes also unpicks the truth of the history and myth of Ulla, as well as the nineteenth-century events and how they relate to the present day.

I ask Maine how she knitted these threads together into a fast-moving novel. She says that she came from a family with “restless genes – for generations they have been moving around Canada, Australia and New Zealand – and I love to write about the Scottish diaspora. I enjoy writing novels set, at least partly, in the past as I enjoy the research, and heading down the highways and byways which open up.”

Maine adroitly conveys the atmospheric setting. The Hebrides and the West Coast of Scotland are both places she returns to, she says, “every year to write and recharge the batteries, and they are precious and fragile places. Because they are rural, coastal and relatively sparsely populated, the past, in terms of monuments and features in the landscape, is still very visible, whether as burial sites, stone circles, duns, brochs, castles or Victorian baronial houses. Because of this, the past feels very present in the consciousness, and the lapse of centuries seems to shrink. Legends, myths and the oral tradition survive but, as described in Women of the Dunes, these are not always reliable sources but fulfil the agendas of the storytellers. In this case, the legend has been romanticised by the Scottish Romantic movement and appropriated by the Church in order to carry a Christian message. Women of the Dunes aims to show how stories (or legends) might have been manipulated over time and how the truth is sometimes very different.”

Maine confesses that constructing three timelines was a challenge: “Just giving short fragments of the legend, enough to tell the true account and sketch the characters, really meant I was only dealing with two, which was more manageable for me – and for the readers. I preferred doing it this way to having someone tell or read an account of the legend – and this also allowed me to give the reader a glimpse of the rather grittier ‘real’ events of the ninth century. It also allowed me to reprise the rather subversive personalities of the Men of the Dunes and play with their names (Odrhan, Oliver Drummond, Rodri).”

Maine finishes by wondering whether her last statement is a spoiler. Should she instead leave readers to work it out for themselves? “What do you think?” she concludes.

What do I think? I think she has slipped in yet another intriguing layer I had failed to notice: another reason to start re-reading Women of the Dunes to unearth yet more.

About the contributor: Sally Zigmond writes, edits and reviews both short and long fiction. Her Victorian saga, Hope Against Hope, was published in 2011.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 86 (November 2018)

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