Sarah Maine has studied archaeology in Great Britain, and she pours her knowledge of the subject and passion for following the clues of the past that our ancestors leave behind into her new work of fiction, Bhalla Strand. Published by Freight Books in Glasgow and set, mainly, on a remote island in an area known as the Hebrides during both the 1910’s and 2010, it is full of the charm of British English, as well as names of characters, such as Ruairidh and Aonghas, which I am still quite unsure as to how to pronounce.
Slotted as a mystery, Bhalla Strand is so much more sophisticated than the usual “Who done it?” mysteries that I tend to stay far from. Instead, it is a very well written piece of literature that applies the author’s knowledge of archeology and ancestry research in order to unfold the story behind Bhalla House, the crumbling mansion inherited by Harriet (Hetty) Deveraux, and the skeleton found beneath its floor boards.
Throughout Bhalla Strand, Maine shifts between the story line of the Blake family and Bhalla House during the 1910’s, and that of Hetty’s developing plans for the house and island in 2010. For the Blake family, especially for the artist and master of the house, Theo Blake, Bhalla Strand is an island of strained and lost relationships which, nonetheless, constantly draws him back to explore these losses as he expresses them though his paintings of island life. For Hetty, on the other hand, Bhalla Strand is a place of healing from the loss of her parents and grandmother as she reconnects with the mysteries of her ancestors and tries to sort out their stories through the photographs, letters and art that she discovers. It is also a place for her to detach from present draining relationships and to connect with those still living a simpler life on the island.
Often, there are novels which throw in needless details or leave threads of story line underdeveloped and disconnected from the main body of the story. Maine, however, leaves no loose ends as she masterfully weaves a complex story of love and loss, assumptions, mistakes, accidents, and regrets from both the past and present ends of the timeline. Her characters are clear and very human, and the crumbling house, the art, and wildlife (especially the Selkies, or seal woman of lore) are played excellently as metaphors throughout the novel.
To be completely honest, I finished reading the novel a week ago and am still finding myself thinking on it through out my day, still “feeling” for the characters and the humanness of their tragedy. We all love a happy ending, and, though Hetty’s works out well, that of the Blake family works out fairly realistically in a way that the character of Hetty describes as being, “lives that were now played out. Past Help. Past saving…” As is true, for all of the ancestors whose lives we explore through the archives. Lives that cannot be rewritten into “happily ever after” but are what they are: Past help. Past saving.
Bhalla Strand, by Sarah Maine, is a fantastic read, sophisticated, romantic without being seedy, and very well done over all.
Alyssa Katanic is a wife and homeschooling mother of 7 children under 11 years old. She loves reading and collecting great books to share with others and knows that one can never have too many!
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Freight Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.