At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen, tells the story of a disparate group of individuals and the damaging effects of the monsters which invade their lives. Set in the remote Scottish Highlands in the last months of the Second World War we are introduced to British, American and Canadian folk who have been thrown together at an Inn on the edge of Loch Ness. Whilst trying to survive the effects of the Nazi monster rumbling across Europe they must each face up to the demons they encounter closer to home. This is a tale of love, loss and a search for peace.
Maddie, Ellis and Hyde have publicly embarrassed Ellis’s father at a high society party in Philadelphia. As a result he has cut them off financially and evicted them from his home. To regain his favour they decide to travel to Scotland where they plan to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster, something which Ellis’s father had tried to do a decade before. This ill fated attempt brought him fame and then infamy when it was shown that he had faked the pictures he had taken. Ellis believes that if he can capture undisputed footage then he will earn his father’s forgiveness.
This trio of privileged, young Americans use their upmarket contacts to gain passage on a cargo ship crossing the Altlantic in the midst of the war. Maddie is deeply affected by her first taste of the realities of conflict and is discomfited by her husband’s lack of empathy to the suffering around them.
They check in to a remote Inn where Ellis treats the staff as he has always done those at home, expecting them to quietly meet his every need. He becomes angry when they openly display the contempt in which they hold him, retreating into a drunken stupor exacerbated by drugs prescribed for his wife’s nervous complaint. He cites this complaint at every hint of her unhappiness with his behaviour.
The author introduces the Scottish bar staff and customers who each have their own stories to tell. The Inn is a haunt of Canadian lumberjacks who are contributing to the war effort and courting the young women of the area. Ellis and Hyde remain aloof, believing that they are above this hoi poloi. When Maddie starts to befriend those they regard as socially beneath them Ellis accuses her of showing her lack of breeding, of letting them all down.
Maddie is at the centre of the story. As her eyes are opened to the vacuity of her husband’s existence and the worth of her new, Scottish friends she changes. She also comes to realise that the hold her husband has over her will not be willingly relinquished. In these times it was common for women who did not conform to be diagnosed as mentally deranged. Her own mother once threatened her with a lobotomy and now she fears her husband may do the same.
The horrors of the war, the remoteness of the location, and the monsters that men may become are all evoked in the gentle, compelling prose. Alongside is a burgeoning love story as Maddie encounters a world beyond the privileged lifestyle in which she has been a pawn.
I had mixed feelings about the denouement. The rest of the book was a pleasure to read, easy but with plenty to consider. The ending was not to my taste.
This is a well written tale that takes the reader inside the time and place in which it is set. The characters are believable, the plot enjoyable. I suspect that the reservations I have about the ending say more about my cynicism than about the pleasure others may derive from the tying up of the tale.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Two Roads.