A gorgeous, haunting, and captivating novel of a century-long family mystery in the wild of Scotland, and one woman’s hunt for the truth.
Scotland, 1949: Caroline Gillan and her new husband Alasdair have moved back to Kelly Castle, his dilapidated family estate in the middle of nowhere. Stuck caring for their tiny baby, and trying to find her way with an opinionated mother-in-law, Caroline feels adrift, alone and unwelcome.
But when she is tasked with sorting out the family archives, Caroline discovers a century-old mystery that sparks her back to life. There is one Gillan bride who is completely unknown – no photos exist, no records have been kept – the only thing that is certain is that she had a legitimate child. Alasdair’s grandmother.
As Caroline uncovers a strange story that stretches as far as the Arctic circle, her desire to find the truth turns obsessive. And when a body is found in the grounds of the castle, her hunt becomes more than just a case of curiosity. What happened all those years ago? Who was the bride? And who is the body…?
This is one of the most beautifully written books I have read this year. Once again we have two timelines – Caroline, Alasdair and baby Felicity in 1949, being forced to live in Kelly Castle with Alasdair’s opinionated mum Martha, after their cottage in the grounds is flooded, and the mystery of who was Alasdair’s great-grandmother, for whom there is no grave, no pictures and whose name has been removed from the family tree.
In the original timeline 100 or so years earlier, we have Charlotte, an artist and rebel, her beautiful sister Louisa and Oliver, who is their best childhood friend. Charlotte and Louisa live at Kelly, but one day Oliver’s mother Sylvia decides they are not good enough to mix and they are told to leave. There is also Mary, regarded even lower in the society of the time, who goes to work in a factory.
A few years later, Oliver declares his love for Louisa to his mother’s horror, while Charlotte declares her love for Oliver. Sylvia bans both women both from the house. Oliver is incensed (as far as the lovely, gentle Oliver can be) and threatens to go away. And so he does. He signs up to be the surgeon on a whaling ship – the Narwhal – but doesn’t realise he’ll be gone for months. Oliver isn’t fully qualified as a doctor but the captain doesn’t seem bothered. Not the best start when he has to perform amputations for the first time.
Back to 1949 and Martha has asked Caro if she would like to research the family history, as Caro is finding being alone with a baby and not working lonely and frustrating. Not that she doesn’t love baby Fliss, but life was different then, no daytime TV, no Mumsnet or baby clubs and too far out of the way to join any if they did exist. And what a history she uncovers! Now I must at this point state that I actually grew to love Martha. Her snobbishness was of its time – we can’t always judge people by today’s standards – and she also did not have the benefit of learning about modern mother/daughter (or daughter-in-law) boundaries. Mothers were expected to dish out advice to the next generation and at times Caro can be rather too sensitive and pig-headed.
But I’ve forgotten one of the most important events – the body in Caro and Alasdair’s garden. Who is it and why is it there? While reading with my fellow Pigeons we all had our opinions, based on evidence or lack of it and occasional wishful thinking.
I loved this book and I say this as a vegetarian who winced at the killing of the whales, the poor seals coming up though the holes in the ice to be slaughtered for meat and skins and the caribou for their warm fur. I even winced at the constant eating of lamb by both generations, but I have to accept that this was how the Inuit survived and that wealthy people were lucky to have meat to sustain themselves after the war. OK twentieth century snowflake rant over.
About the Author
Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway. She is married with three children, and lives in Kingston upon Thames. A Woman Made of Snow is her fifth novel.