Elisabeth Gifford's debut novel, The Sea House, is a sweeping, heartfelt portrait of the search for truth, the power of family, and the desire to belong. We first meet Ruth, a troubled woman haunted by a tragic past, as she purchases a dilapidated sea house on the Scottish island of Harris in the early 1990s. Ruth and her husband Michael have grandiose plans to renovate the sea house, start a business, and build a family; but Ruth’s internal struggle brings her relationship with Michael through irrevocable tensions. The first in a story filled with remarkably well-drawn characters, Ruth’s plight instantly touches the reader’s heart as she ushers us into the coldness and ultimately the hope of her fragile life. Unsettled by feelings of a presence at the sea house, Ruth is shaken anew when the remains of a baby are discovered buried with care under the house: the bones of its legs are joined together, giving it the appearance of a little mermaid. Is it a sad deformity or was the child born of the selkies, the race of mermaid-like creatures whose legend is buried deep in the history of the island? As Ruth undertakes a search for answers, memories of her own sad childhood begin to unravel. Gifford illustrates Ruth’s journey of determination with grace, drawing the reader further into the world of a woman finding herself and unearthing the courage to live a full life.
The second half of the story, which is creatively interwoven with Ruth's search, takes us to Harris and the same secretive sea house in 1860 when a young Reverend Alexander Ferguson arrives to lead the local parish under the esteem of the local laird, Lord Marstone, on whose fortune the island exists. A scientist of evolutionary studies, Alexander has a particular interest in the legends of the selkies and it is his search for the truth behind the legend that has driven him to Harris. According to his family’s stories, Alexander is a descendant of the fables seal-men, and as he begins his work on the island he hopes to lead the discovery of an ancient species while also unravelling the mystery of his ancestors. Like that of Ruth, Alexander’s story is powerfully rendered, the heart of the character taking on a life of its own as the reader begins to share his hope of the fantastical becoming real. His companion at the sea house, a young maid named Moira, takes on a narrative of her own in the 19th century portion of the story, and it’s in her that Ruth finds her historical match for courage. Moira’s simple life as a maid harbors a secret and her own family past has left her with a violent vendetta against Lord Marstone, one she plans to exact until life at the sea house is touched by unforeseen and tragic circumstances.
Set against Gifford’s beautiful interpretation of the Hebrides islands, the story of Alexander and Moira is echoed by Ruth as she unwittingly follows in their footsteps on her own path into the past. What results is a lyrical and arresting debut that brings the power of the Scottish landscape to life and carries the reader between the gripping details of history and the nuanced personal dramas of the story’s characters. Gifford writes in a strong, deeply thought-provoking prose that renders itself just as entertaining as the legends of the selkies, mermaids and sea-people. As half of the story touches on the magic of legends and fables, the alternating half follows the inherently true and all-too-relatable search for identity. Although they take the shapes of three very different characters, separated by time or history or understanding, there’s an aching similarity in the plights of Moira, Alexander, and Ruth that illuminates the most poignant honesty of The Sea House<. At once a Gothic story and a timeless portrait of healing, The Sea House is a triumphant debut that readers won’t soon forget.