The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Novel set in the Hebrides (“.. haunting portrayal of grief and its cruel processes”)
24th January 2016
Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey, novel set in the Hebrides.
Freya returns to the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage on a remote Hebridean island one year after her husband and son vanished at sea. She has found it nigh impossible to move on with her life and her return to their much-loved holiday home is an attempt to finally purge the pain of the loss. She is tortured by visions of their former happy family life and she is further plagued by dreams featuring her son, in which she is repeatedly warned of the dangers awaiting her. While exploring the lighthouse tower, Freya discovers a diary that her son, Sam, had been keeping in the days before the mysterious boating accident and she decides to retrace the movements of her husband and son. Gradually, as she reads and follows their footsteps, Freya begins her healing journey.
This is a very well-researched and skilfully crafted novel. Bailey has cleverly woven together several different strands of narrative. There is Freya’s story and Sam’s diary account and then there are the letters which Sam and his dad discovered sealed up inside a bottle and cast up by the sea. These letters are from Edward, one of Cromwell’s soldiers, to his wife and child in which he describes the islands and their inhabitants. All these different narratives are woven together by Celtic myth and legend and by the common theme of the sea and its endless hunger for human life. Bailey conveys very vividly the way in which the island dwellers both admire and fear it; we are constantly reminded that the sea gives life as well as taking it away. This is also a very poignant story – I can’t remember ever having read such an accurate and haunting portrayal of grief and its cruel processes.
Bailey’s prose has a lyrical quality which is perfect for this tale with its blend of myth and reality and the Hebridean island setting, beautiful and sinister in equal measure is so vividly described that the words weave their way through your thoughts long after you have closed the book. It certainly makes you feel that you’d like to visit to experience the beauty of the light and landscape and maybe even steel yourself to face some of the more intimidating aspects, such as the Corryvreckan whirlpool or Dubh Artach.
It might sound as if this is one of those novels that focus on emotion and descriptions to the detriment of the story, but that is completely untrue. As well as all its other qualities, this is a real page-turner, with surprising twists and turns and a really scary climax.
All in all – a must-read. 10 out of 10 for setting and story.
Ellen for the TripFiction Team
Melissa talks about location and the raw beauty of remote Scottish islands ….
Way back in the beginning, before Beyond the Sea had taken shape as a story, there were only a few things that were clear to me. I could see a woman, her hair turned white in grief, standing alone by the sea, a lighthouse in the near distance behind her. That was pretty much it for a while. But I think I probably knew, way back then, when I didn’t know much else, that the woman was standing on a beach in the Hebrides.
It’s a part of the world that I love and have been visiting for many years: Mull, Iona, Skye and the small islands, Canna, Muck, Eigg and Rum. I’m drawn to its raw beauty, its wildness, the fact that the weather can change in an instant, sunshine becoming rain becoming sleet. It is brutal, elemental, timeless – craggy mountain ranges, desolate moorlands, restless ever shifting seas. Yet the landscape also has, I feel, a redemptive quality, something magical about it. The sea takes away, and yet it also gives back. It is often death, but it is also life. And so the remote fringes of the British Isles, the untamed edges of civilisation, seemed a very natural and fitting backdrop for a woman touched by devastating loss, her emotions as turbulent and fast changing as the winds or the tides, but perhaps moving slowly towards redemption.
So a story began to evolve. The woman became Freya, whose husband and son vanish at sea the year before the novel begins. She returns to the lighthouse keeper’s cottage they once called home, seeking solace, trying to move beyond her grief. Beyond the Sea is the story of her journey. But it also tells the story of the Hebrides and the sea – characters in their own right.
Landscape photos © Melissa Bailey