The conventional theme of an unspoiled paradise threatened by progress is treated with keen intelligence in the Scottish author’s ninth novel.
It essentially resembles her acclaimed historical novels The Sea Road (not reviewed) and Voyageurs (2004) in that it’s set in a remote place and involves elemental contests of will between strongly imagined characters. The year is 1831, and the (somewhat minimal) plot pits sisters-in-law Lucy and Diya Geddes and their three children (Lucy’s fatherless son Billy, widowed Diya’s daughters Breesha and Mally) against two strangers who arrive at Ellan Bride, a small island near the Isle of Man, where Lucy has assumed the lighthouse keeper’s duties formerly performed by Diya’s now-deceased husband. The initially unwelcome visitors are surveyor Archibald Buchanan and his assistant, Ben Groat, employed by Robert Stevenson (who, as readers of Bella Bathurst’s popular historical study The Lighthouse Stevensons will recall, was the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson). The two are to study the possibility of building a new lighthouse on the island. If their mission is accomplished, the fragmented families of roughhewn, pragmatic Lucy and gentle, abstracted (Indian-born) Diya will surely be dispossessed. Resulting complications affect both intimacies that develop, over a taut three-day span, among the four adults, and the children determined to protect the pristine haven they have grown to love. Elphinstone’s descriptions of Ellan Bride’s topography and climate, flora and fauna, are as lovely as they are precise, and the range of characterizations developed within her novel’s small compass is quite remarkable. But the story feels somewhat over-familiar, and there are perhaps a few too many echoes of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica and D.H. Lawrence’s tense novella, “The Fox.” Still, Elphinstone works subtle variations on the themes of illumination, enclosure and fulfillment, and the narrative holds the reader’s interest throughout.
Another bold step forward for a “traditional” writer who seldom fails to make the long-ago and faraway seem as near as the matter of our own everyday lives.