Book Review: Liminal

“The rhythm of the glen, the rhythm of new life in the language of the old ones.”

Liminal, by Bee Lewis, takes a series of typically modern day problems and plays them out within the backdrop of a timeless and somewhat threatening wilderness. There are surreal elements and sections where the language and imagery are rich to the point of over indulgence. Dream sequences are necessarily mystical and somewhat disturbing. Their intensity requires interpretation that I’m not convinced I achieved.

The day to day sections are written as more standard domestic thriller with just a suggestion of the supernatural. The protagonists are struggling with a frustrating inability to communicate.

The story is told over the course of a week leading up to Easter. Esther and her husband, Dan, have uprooted their comfortable lives in the centre of vibrant Bristol to move to a remote glen in the Highlands of Scotland. They have purchased a long disused railway station which they intend to renovate and turn into a writers’ centre. Cut off from mobile phone signals and internet access, the radical change they have chosen is yet another challenging shift in lives already derailed.

Esther is newly pregnant and determined to make her faltering marriage work for the sake of their child. Her own childhood was difficult, although she now plans to try to build bridges. She regards the move as a fresh start and a way to remove Dan from the influence of his overbearingly religious father. Esther is still grieving two recent and significant losses. Dan is struggling to cope with his enforced change of career. Neither is able to talk to the other about their true feelings. Both are keeping secrets while blaming the other for not sharing.

Arriving at their new home they discover the fridge and cupboards unexpectedly stocked with food. A neighbour, Mike, pops by to introduce himself and explain that this is by way of welcome. When a thick fog settles over the land overnight it becomes too risky to leave the glen. Esther is suffering intense dreams where she is being hunted in the neighbouring forests. As an amputee her mobility is impaired.

The trees and the various creatures observe the new arrivals. Each day is a struggle to contain festering resentments. Esther is aware of her marital issues but tries to suppress their importance. These play out in her dreams which appear to offer both threat and potential for freedom. At times she feels inexplicably attuned to her surroundings but cannot understand what they are trying to tell her. Dan is concerned she is suffering some sort of breakdown.

Over the course of the coming days Mike is a regular visitor. He and Dan are at ease with each other – Esther has never previously seen her husband relax in this way. She is also drawn to Mike but unsure how to behave with him. Esther is unsettled, unable to quash her suspicion that Dan is once again hiding important facts from her. The fog renders them prisoners in a building that harbours its own secrets.

The failing marriage, the cut off setting and the enigmatic stranger are well portrayed. The dream sequences and anthropomorphised nature add to the spooky tension. The plot progression felt somewhat slow at times until the denouement. The reveal had been foreshadowed, but required a sudden character shift.

There were aspects of the story that I wanted to work – interesting ideas and suggestions. The writing conjured the requisite disturbance but ultimately lacked coherence. I wish it were otherwise but this affected my enjoyment. It was not a tale that worked for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of three brutal murders in a remote community of the Scottish Highlands in 1869. A young man by the name of Roderick Macrae is arrested and stands trial for the crimes. He readily admits that he carried out the attacks but shows no remorse. All that stands between him and the gallows is the question of his sanity.

The unusual structure of the book is inspired. In the preface the author talks of discovering documents from the case while researching his own family history. He then reproduces witness statements from those who had known Roddy throughout his life, taken soon after the killings. There follows an account written by the accused at the behest of his advocate, a sympathetic and forward thinking man who, unlike many at the time, does not appear to regard the Highlanders as a lesser species.

Roddy was born and raised in the township of Culchie, a settlement of nine dwellings in the far north west of Scotland, whose occupants eked out a living working the crofts adjacent to their homes. As a child he attended church and school at neighbouring Camusterrach. Further along the road was Applecross where an Inn and Big House provided for Lord Middleton who owned the land. These and the surrounding hills were as far as Roddy had ever travelled.

The nine dwellings in Culchie varied in style and comfort. Roddy’s was crudely built and housed animals as well as the family. His mother had died in childbirth a year previously and this had badly affected those remaining. Despite his academic ability, Roddy was required to leave school and work on the land as soon as was allowed. His elder sister took their mother’s place at home, including caring for the younger siblings. Their father believed that all transgressions could be dealt with by viciously beating the offender.

Roddy’s account details his upbringing and events that lead to his decision to kill. The family’s life is hard, made moreso by a neighbour who harbours a grudge. When a member of this family is granted a position of authority by those tasked with managing Lord Middleton’s estate, they use it to undermine what little autonomy the Macrae’s have retained.

Following Roddy’s account there are short medical reports written by doctors who examine the young man while he is incarcerated at Inverness Gaol. Although there are scientific truths in many of their observations, they highlight the low opinion held at the time of those who lived in poverty, especially those who turned to crime. The doctors believe themselves not just superior but born that way. They view the harsh living conditions of the Highlanders as all they deserve.

The account of the trial makes up the remainder of the book. As with all good trials, this throws some doubt into the narrative that has thus far been built. Detail is added as to how Roddy was viewed locally. Incidents recounted by witnesses introduce uncertainty as to his motivations.

The epilogue is short but shows how reporting of heinous crimes has always been sensationalised with little regard for the truth. The story is a tragedy, but for more than just the murders.

It is a rare treat to come across a book that is so intriguing and compelling. It explores complex issues yet is entirely accessible. There is much to ponder around how difficult it is to puncture individual and societal preconceptions. A riveting story that I recommend you read.

His Bloody Project is published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband.

Book Review: At the Water’s Edge

At The Water's Edge hb cover

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.