Calgary Beach, Isle of Mull. Stunning, isn’t it? One of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited. This experience guaranteed to be one of the highlights of 2014, and a harbinger of the pleasures that followed with the reading of Bhalla Strand. Sarah Maine’s beach a crossing point between the mainland and a fictional island in the Outer Hebrides, leading to the location of Bhalla House, a crumbling Edwardian mansion, inherited by city-girl Hetty, who has plans to transform it and the island into a luxury holiday resort.
Just before she arrives to scout out her inheritance, however, a body is found beneath the floorboards of the conservatory and the resulting investigation introduces delays during which Hetty faces the locals and their hostility to her plans; a hostility fed by their mistrust of the outsider and a genuine concern for their way of life and the ecology of their island.
These are themes echoed in the historical narrative, the story of Beatrice and her ill-fated marriage to Theo Blake, an artist of some genius, whose descent into madness was documented in his paintings. The seeds of that illness sown during his early life on the island but sprouting much later, during and after his marriage to Beatrice. Domestic dramas like this don’t usually rivet me but this had me superglued to the pages.
The antagonisms between Theo and his tenants (those that survived the clearances required to make space for the mansion), his disregard for the wildlife, seeking out rare species of bird, only to shoot and add them to his collection of stuffed animals, his superior and condescending manner to his wife … it’s no wonder Beatrice soon finds herself torn between wifely duty and an overwhelming attraction to a rugged islander and estate groundsman ….
100 years later Hetty finds herself facing similar tensions. Her business plans are formulated by her boyfriend and his patronising contacts. Profits, the only driving force and, of course, a risk to the island’s fragile ecosystem. But the island has defences of its own: the landscape, the tides and a particularly canny, rugged islander in the form of James Cameron.
And so the two narratives weave in and out of each other, held together by the timelessness of the Scottish landscape, echoing themes, emotional authenticity, a gothic mansion and the mystery of the body beneath the floorboards. A fantastic blend from the palette of this debut author’s pen … As for Sarah Maine’s beach, I wish I could visit. As for Theo’s Blake’s Bhalla Strand, a painting of that beach on which two wispy figures are fading with the transience of time, someone should paint it. I want to hang it on my wall.
© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)