Secrets of the Sea House is a novel covering an interesting topic matter – the history of the northern Scottish Islands and the fables (and realities) of the seal people (selkies) and mermaids, through the weaving of two stories. The first is the modern tale of the orphaned Ruth, who is married and renovating the Sea House on the island of Harris, while dealing with her own issues in foster homes and girls’ homes following the suicide of her mother. The second is the story of the house in the 1860s, through the Reverend Alexander and his housemaid Moira.
There are three narrators, each bringing a different element of history of the islands together. Moira’s family died after being removed from their land, talking of the harsh and bitter lives of the natives moved by the British lord. Alexander is an academic newly ordained clergyman, naïve and isolated and obsessed with searching for mermaids and selkies as proof of Darwinian theory. Ruth brings a modern element to the story in searching for her own roots and dealing with her own issues in making a life on the modern island.
While interesting topics and history, the story itself isn’t overly compelling. I often wondered how the past narrators and modern narrators were connected, and other than sharing a house a century and a half apart, there is no real connection. I found the first half of the book somewhat of a struggle to get through. The ending is also somewhat disappointing, a nice ending for Ruth, making a new life in her new family and business, although since she dwelled on past family so much it would have been nice to see more familiarity with other characters who turn out to be from her past.. The end is somewhat ‘spread out’ in leaving other minor characters hanging. I found it also somewhat scattered in approaches to the character of Katriona (as the daughter of the Lord), although that could be because she is only seen through the naivety of Alexander, and the jealous bitterness of Moira towards her.
It was an enjoyable read to get through, but didn’t find it too overly compelling.