Anna Bennett, historian and Oxford fellow, has discovered that the formality and rigidity of academic life is incompatible with the uncontrollable demands of a young family. Following a very embarrassing incident, she agrees to spend the summer in Colsay, a fictional uninhabited Scottish island owned by her husband. This doesn’t make raising the children any easier, not when the baby refuses to sleep, her elder son is obsessed with ecological disaster, her husband is too busy puffin watching to carry his fair share of the load and she is trying to write a book!
Just when she reconciles herself to planting the trees on a rare dry day (it is a Scottish summer, after all), her already disturbed elder son digs up the skeleton of a new-born baby. Enter the police and with them suspicions as to whether Anna is a capable mother. A qualified redemption is provided by the first guests to their holiday home: a family that redefines the term dysfunctional and soothes Anna with the knowledge that life could definitely be worse.
This is something that the reader realises early on as a parallel story emerges of life on the island in the late nineteeth century through the letters of May, a young English nurse whose mission was to improve the health of the island community. Moss’s fictional Colsay is modelled on St Kilda and anyone unacquainted with that history (as I was) is going to learn an awful lot and be tremendously shocked with the events that unfold in this thread.
Moss’s writing is both vivid and nuanced; darkly comic when portraying Anna’s crisis of confidence, unsentimental and penetrating when revealing the problems of her paying guests, and cleverly veiled when unpealing the mysteries of the past. I laughed, flinched and grieved my way through the pages. I was completely transfixed.
The ending, though it leaves me worrying for Judith, weaves past and present together to construct an optimistic path into the future. The moral of the story: there are silver linings even in those stormy rain clouds over the Scottish islands.