Friday, October 3, 2014

The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

This novel tells a contemporary story with roots in the past. Ruth and her husband have moved to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides to restore the Sea House, a grand yet dilapidated old vicarage, and create an inn. Renovation of the old dwelling reveals a shocking secret from the past. Ruth is troubled by the discovery and must uncover what really happened .

The contemporary story of Ruth is interwoven with that of Reverend Alexander Ferguson who, naive and newly ordained, takes a position in the parish of an isolated patch on the island of Harris in 1860. The time on the island changes his life but the vicarage he occupied keeps its secrets long after he departs.

Ruth is a woman who needs to understand her difficult past. Her heritage includes the story that her grandmother's grandmother was a seal woman. Falling in love with a fisherman, she had shed her seal skin. But was it true that they always returned to the sea? Is that why Ruth's mother committed suicide by drowning?

I enjoyed this novel which included the legend of selkies, mythological creatures, and a possible explanation for belief in them. Having had a brother-in-law born and raised in Scotland, I've heard many tales of Scottish lore and was really excited to read this novel. I was intrigued by how the author wove two stories together. Residents of the Sea House separated by over a hundred years, both were trying to understand who they were and what that meant for their future. We are not able to choose our past but we can choose how we will live our future.

This novel was inspired by an actual letter to The Times in in 1809 in which a Scottish schoolmaster claimed to have seen a mermaid. In an author interview, Gifford says there were many sightings of mermaids up to 200 years ago. There were persistent legends of selkies, seals who would take off their seal skins on land and become human. In this novel, Gifford gives us a plausible explanation for these legends.

Just a note to American readers. This novel is from Great Britain. Christianity is expressed a little differently there and the language used is different as well. While I found nothing offensive in the novel, some fellow reviewers were put off by some of the language.

You can read the first four chapters here. I am taking part in a blog tour of this book and you can read the reviews of other participants here.

Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She is the author of House of Hope: A Story of God's Love and Provision for the Abandoned Orphans of China and has written articles for The Times and the Independent. She is married with three children. They live in Kingston on Thames but spend as much time as possible in the Hebrides. Learn more at or

St. Martin's Press, 320 pages. You can buy the book here.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book through the Litfuse Publicity Group for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

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