A review of The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

In 1860, Alexander Ferguson, a newly ordained vicar and amateur evolutionary scientist, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the remote Scottish island of Harris. He hopes to uncover the truth behind the legend of the selkies—mermaids or seal people who have been sighted off the north of Scotland for centuries. He has a more personal motive, too; family legend states that Alexander is descended from seal men. As he struggles to be the good pastor he was called to be, his maid Moira faces the terrible eviction of her family by Lord Marstone, whose family owns the island. Their time on the island will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after they are gone.

It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child's fragile legs are fused together—a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? To heal her own demons, Ruth feels she must discover the secrets of her new home—but the answers to her questions may lie in her own traumatic past. 

 Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: April 15th 2014 by St. Martin's Press

This debut novel takes place on the beautiful Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland where an isolated croft by the sea remains deserted; holding a dark, secret that new owners Ruth and Michael will uncover. This secret took place around 1860 when the local minister, Reverend Alexander Ferguson fell in love with his housekeeper; having an affair resulting in a baby. Was this the same newborn malformed baby found underneath the floorboards of The Sea House? What could have possibly happened here and why are these souls still trapped within unable to move on?

Two storylines parallel each other decades apart including the subtext of ‘island clearances’ evicting islanders allowing the connection to the Celtic myths of selkies and how it fits into the reverend’s storyline. He is the key to discovering the origins of The Sea House.

There is a lot of myth and folklore written throughout this debut novel and it gets confusing with the inclusion of secondary characters. The past storyline takes over the novel and focuses mainly on one part of the recent couple living in the sea house. Ruth becomes fascinated with the Reverend’s life story and against her husband’s wishes proceeds to delve into the past almost to the point of ruining her marriage!

I found The Sea House interesting in context. I understood what the author wanted to do with these two storylines but it is overcomplicated with too much detail and it is just too crowded on the island for me! Every time a character came upon an obstacle there was a too neatly fitted result. For instance, one aspect of the past storyline includes scientific clues then you discover Ruth has a degree in zoology! She very easily makes connections that should not be so easily found; especially when dealing with Celtic myth and folklore on the Outer Hebrides!

I would instead recommend another Hebredian novel with a mystery involving ‘island clearances’ Peter May’s superbly written ‘Entry Island.’ Also, a selkie-twisted love story written beautifully is Orkney by Amy Sackville. I would highly recommend it as well! 

Thank you to St. Martins Press for my free copy in exchange for my honest review. 

The U.S. Edition comes out on April 15, 2004 and will be available for purchase on Amazon. 


Pamela Britley said…
The novel sounds interesting and diverse. I'll definitely read it. Thanks for a great review.
Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberely

This sounds interesting, yet another novel to read!

Thank you for sharing.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Pamela,
I hope you enjoy The Sea House and thanks for commenting.

HI Kevin,

The Sea House is already published in paperback in the U.K. and on kindle on AmazonUK,
Hi Kimberly Eve. You can see pictures of Harris on Pinterest and articles on the sea people on elisabethgiffordauthor. My husband is a zoologist and scientific illustrator, and my father is a vicar so I have spent more time than is probably necessary with dissections and graveyards! The house is based on Scarista House Hotel in Harris and the book is historically as accurate as possible thanks to the stories told me by local Harris people and Gaelic historian John MacAulay. Many thanks indeed for reviewing the book , Liz
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Elisabeth,
Good to know about Pinterest. I'm not on Pinterest and don't really deal with that page. Sounds like fascinating research and history to be found thanks to Gaelic historian John MacAulay. Thanks for finding me review and leaving a comment.