Secrets of the Sea House

Written by Elisabeth Gifford
Review by Edward James

A young couple moves into an old house and uncovers a dreadful secret. This sounds like the beginning of a Victorian melodrama, and in one way it is.

The uncovered secret is the body of a newborn, malformed baby under the floorboards, the child of a union between the lord of the manor and his stepdaughter 150 years earlier, in the 1860s. But this is only one of the stories in the old house. The hero of the main strand of the plot is the young, naive minister of the local church, who has a slow-burning love affair with his housekeeper.

This is also a story of the ‘island clearances’, of the Hebredian peasantry driven into miserable exile to make way for the landlord’s sheep, and an exploration of the Gaelic myths of the sea people, semi-aquatic humans who come in from the sea (probably kayak-born visitors from the Arctic).

Finally it is the story of the 21st-century narrator who disentangles the inter-locking mysteries while coming to terms with her own troubled past. All this is played out in the desolate beauty of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, giving the book its intense sense of place. A magnificent debut novel.