What Lies Hidden: Secrets of the Sea House & Night Waking

When I read Kay’s review of Sarah Maine’s The House Between Tides, the book seemed so familiar I did a double take. A Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides … dual contemporary and historical story lines … the discovery of a skeleton. It sounded just like Night Waking by Sarah Moss (another Sarah M.!), which I was already planning on rereading on our trip to the Outer Hebrides. Kay then suggested a readalike that ended up being even more similar, Elisabeth Gifford’s The Sea House (U.S. title), one of whose plots was Victorian and the skeleton in which was a baby’s. I passed on the Maine but couldn’t resist finding a copy of the Gifford from the library so I could compare it with the Moss. Both:

 

Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford (2013)

Although nearly 130 years separate the two protagonists, they are linked by the specific setting – a manse on the island of Harris – and a belief that they are descended from selkies. In 1992, Ruth and her husband are converting the Sea House into a B&B and hoping to start a family. When they find the remains of a baby with skeletal deformities reminiscent of a mermaid under the floorboards, Ruth plunges into a search for the truth of what happened in their home. In 1860, Reverend Alexander Ferguson lived here and indulged his amateur naturalist curiosity about cetaceans and the dubious creatures announced as “mermaids” (often poor taxidermy crosses between a monkey and a fish, as in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock).

Ruth and Alexander trade off as narrators, but we get a more rounded view of mid-19th-century life through additional chapters voiced by the reverend’s feisty maid, Moira, a Gaelic speaker whose backstory reveals the cruelty of the Clearances – she won’t forgive the laird for what happened to her family. Gifford’s rendering of period prose wasn’t altogether convincing and there are some melodramatic moments: this could be categorized under romance, and I was surprised by the focus on Ruth’s traumatic upbringing in a children’s home after her mother’s death by drowning. Still, this was an absorbing novel and I actually learned a lot, including the currently accepted explanation for where selkie myths come from.

I also was relieved that Gifford uses real place names instead of disguising them (as Bella Pollen and Sarah Moss did). We passed through the tiny town of Scarista, where the manse is meant to be, on our drive. If I’d known ahead of time that it was a real place, I would have been sure to stop for a photo op (it must be this B&B!). We also stopped in Tarbert, a frequent point of reference, to visit the Harris Gin distillery. (Public library)

 

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

This was my first of Moss’s books and I have always felt guilty that I didn’t appreciate it more. I found the voice more enjoyable this time, but was still frustrated by a couple of things. Dr Anna Bennet is a harried mum of two and an Oxford research fellow trying to finish her book (on Romantic visions of childhood versus the reality of residential institutions – a further link to the Gifford) while spending a summer with her family on the remote island of Colsay, which is similar to St. Kilda. Her husband, Giles Cassingham, inherited the island but is also there to monitor the puffin numbers and track the effects of climate change. Anna finds a baby’s skeleton in the garden while trying to plant some fruit trees. From now on, she’ll snatch every spare moment (and trace of Internet connection) away from her sons Raph and Moth – and the builders and the police – to write her book and research what might have happened on Colsay.

Each chapter opens with an epigraph from a classic work on childhood (e.g. by John Bowlby or Anna Freud). Anna also inserts excerpts from her manuscript in progress and fragments of texts she reads online. Adding to the epistolary setup is a series of letters dated 1878: May Moberley reports to her sister Allie and others on the conditions on Colsay, where she arrives to act as a nurse and address the island’s alarming infant mortality statistics. It took me the entire book to realize that Allie and May are the sisters from Moss’s 2014 novel Bodies of Light; I’m glad I didn’t remember, as there was a shock awaiting me.

According to Goodreads, I first read this over just four days in early 2012. (This was back in the days where I read only one book at a time, or at most two, one fiction and one nonfiction.) I remember feeling like I should have enjoyed its combination of topics – puffin fieldwork, a small island, historical research – much more, but I was irked by the constant intrusions of the precocious children. That is, of course, the point: they interrupt Anna’s life, sleep and research, and she longs for a ‘room of her own’ where she can be a person of intellect again instead of wiping bottoms and assembling sometimes disgusting meals. She loves her children, but hates the daily drudgery of motherhood. Thankfully, there’s hope at the end that she’ll get what she desires.

I had completely forgotten the subplot about the first family they rent out the new holiday cottage to (yet another tie-in to the Gifford, in which they’re preparing to open a guest house): a hot mess of alcoholic mother, workaholic father, and university-age daughter with an eating disorder. Zoe’s interactions with the boys, and Anna’s role as makeshift counsellor to her, are sweet, but honestly? I would have cut this story line entirely. Really, I longed for the novella length and precision of a later work like Ghost Wall. Still, I was happy to reread this, with Anna’s wry wit a particular highlight, and to discover for the first time (silly me!) that thread of connection with Bodies of Light / Signs for Lost Children. (Free from a neighbour)

Original rating:

My rating now:

 

I enjoyed the Gifford enough to immediately request the library’s copy of one of her newer novels, The Lost Lights of St. Kilda, so my connection to the Western Isles can at least continue through my reading. I also found a pair of children’s novels plus a mystery novel set on St. Kilda, and I was sent an upcoming novel set on an island off the west coast of Scotland, so I’ll be on this Scotland reading kick for a while!

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18 responses

  1. Your positive reviews contrast with your ‘ok- ish’ scores. I’ll add these to my list but not bust a gut to source them, I’m thinking.

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    1. Somewhere between ‘like’ and ‘love’ made these 3.5* for me, especially in comparison with others of Moss’s books that I’ve thought of more highly. While I particularly enjoyed reading these on location in the Outer Hebrides, I did have some issues with the plotting and pacing that steered me away from a wholehearted 4*. Numerical ratings are never perfectly objective, but in general a 3.5 for me means a solid read with maybe a couple of niggles, and something I’d recommend if you have a particular interest in the subject matter or have liked that author before.

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      1. Oh, I see. Glad you weren’t my teacher at school. You mark low! 😉

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      2. I do think I’m a somewhat harsh grader. But I prefer it to giving everything 5 stars as that devalues the top mark!

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  2. I love that you also did a comparative re-read post for Night Waking! I felt very similarly about it to you – enjoyed it more on second reading (when I first read it, I was so young I couldn’t empathise with Anna’s motherhood struggles at all) but agree that it is too long.

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    1. PS I’m kind of unsurprised you missed the link with the later novels. May is treated so coldly in this book, and I think Moss would have written those sections differently if she had written the later novels first.

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      1. It must have been mentioned as part of the backstory in Signs for Lost Children, but I had no memory of that and didn’t mention the link in my review of either that or Bodies of Light. I think I admire Moss more now that I know she had this meta vision for her work.

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    2. I totally forgot you reviewed it with the Broder. You must have found the history of childhood stuff interesting? Or was it too much like work?!

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      1. I found it a bit unconvincing unfortunately. The book Anna is writing felt really out of date (even given the novel’s publication date) – plenty of general histories of childhood available by the 1980s and 1990s.

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  3. I’m a longstanding Moss fan but I’d agree with you about Night Waking. It’s the first of hers I read but not much of it has stayed with me.

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    1. I enjoyed the reread on location but wouldn’t choose this one to recommend to someone new to her work.

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  4. As a harried mother of two with academic or writing ambitions being constantly thwarted and a less-than-useless husband, Night Waking actually really resonated with me. When I saw Sarah Moss at an event, it was this book that I got her to sign, and she nodded sympathetically when I said I recognised so much of myself here. But she admitted that most readers would not say it was their favourite one of hers.

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    1. I can see how someone balancing motherhood and academic life would get more out of it than I did. How lovely that you got to meet her! I’ve seen her, though not spoken to her, at a few awards ceremonies and she seems like a very sweet and unassuming person. Signs for Lost Children is my favourite of hers.

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  5. I’ll have to look for the St. Kilda book. I’m not so sure about the Moss book.

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    1. If you aren’t already a fan of hers, you probably don’t need to bother. I hope I like Gifford’s St. Kilda book at least as much as this one.

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      1. I remember liking The Sea House.

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  6. I’m just not a Moss fan after her Names for the Sea about Iceland (OK, you have to write a VERY good book about Iceland to get praise from me) so I’ve steered clear of her novels. Which is probably silly, but I think I’d have found problematic what you found problematic. I’d love to know what the modern explanation for selkie myths is, though!

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    1. It’s thought that it arose from visitors from the far north (the Sami or Inuit) arriving in sealskin canoes and wearing sealskin head to toe. Especially seeing them from a distance, anyone would think these were seal-people who could shed their skin at will.

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