Turning the Stones

Written by Debra Daley
Review by Lynn Guest

In 18th-century Cheshire, Em Smith, a foundling, was fostered by the Waterland family, first as a playmate and later as a lady’s maid to their daughter, Eliza. Em’s destiny would seem to be tied inevitably to the family, but on a trip to London, she discovers there is no record of her arrival at the foundling hospital or of the Waterlands as her foster parents. On an excursion to a pleasure garden with Eliza and her brother Johnny, she is drugged and comes to in a strange house next to the murdered Johnny. Fearing arrest, she flees. After various adventures, Em is washed up on the Galway coast where, mysteriously, it seems she has been expected.

Daley is superb at landscape, atmosphere and weather. The Waterland house in its Cheshire fishing port, Em’s sea journey and most particularly, 18th-century Ireland are beautifully captured. A shipwreck and the depiction of life in primitive Irish villages –these alone would make the novel worth reading. The stoicism of the Irish kelp harvesters in the face of grinding poverty is very powerful. But we also have a strong heroine in Em; her travails keep us on tenterhooks. Mrs Waterland and Johnny make sly antagonists. The structure of the novel flips back and forth over time and place but the reader, if occasionally bewildered, is never completely lost.

If the complicated plot’s conclusion is just this side of preposterous, never mind. Suspend belief and enjoy.