The house that Hetty Deveraux has just inherited is no prize. Originally, Muirlan House was a Victorian manor, the home of up-and-coming painter Theo Blake. Now the house is falling to pieces. It will cost millions to restore, as Hetty planned. It’s a daunting project even before a local contractor discovers a decades’ old body buried in the foundations. Sarah Maine’s The House Between Tides is a slow unfolding of the house’s secrets and the secrets of the families who live on the island off the coast of Skye.
The House Between Tides is split into two parallel narratives. In 2010, Hetty ponders her options for the house and the estate. Her boyfriend and his colleagues are pushing her into restoring the house, turning it into a hotel, and using the grounds for golf and shooting parties. The people she meets on Skye and on Muirlan island are far from keen, because their recent ancestors were kicked off the island as part of the Clearances. The whole affair brings up lots of bad blood—literally when the body is discovered. The other narrative is narrated by Beatrice Blake in 1910 and 1911, when Muirlan House was in its heyday. Beatrice is the increasingly unhappy bride of Theo Blake. Theo was a promising artist before his talent seemed to evaporate. When they move back to the manor (built by his father after “clearing” most of the tenants), Theo becomes autocratic, reclusive, and controlling. He is not the man Beatrice married and he is getting worse.
In both halves of the book, Hetty and Beatrice are incomers who have stumbled into situations where everyone is close-mouthed and furious with each other. It takes them a long time to get the locals to open up about anything. They only have hints of grudges and crimes to go on for the most part. And, while we read about Hetty and Beatrice’s travails, there’s the question of the corpse the contractor found. Is it Beatrice? Is it someone from the island?
There were moments in The House Between Tides when I worried that the book was starting to get overstuffed, yet Maine never let her characters, plots, or mysteries get too far out of control. She also avoids the cardinal sin of trans-generational narratives by making Hetty and Beatrice both interesting and unique. Every time the book would shift in time, I would reluctantly part from whichever narrator had the reins but get almost immediately sucked in by the other narrator. Interestingly, neither of these women is an obvious heroine. For much of the book, they are run over roughshod by other characters. I found both women completely sympathetic, cheering for them when they discovered their inner grit.
On top of all this mystery, Maine also gives us a strong sense of the Hebrides. Hardly a chapter goes by without mention of the harsh weather, the delicate ecosystem, and the startling diversity of birds the nest on the islands. Throughout the book, characters do battle with each other to either save or transform (i.e. destroy) the islands. The characters who want to save the islands struggle against the changing times to preserve what’s left of Highland culture and the natural beauty of the place. The characters who want to develop (i.e. ruin) the islands want to turn the land into exclusive pleasure gardens. There’s a lot at stake in The House Between Tides, making for a very rewarding read.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 20 July 2016.