The history of Scotland, and its inhabitants, is a dark and fascinating place. In her latest novel, The Island House, Posie Graeme-Evans takes a look at it in an unusual way. Firstly through the eyes of Freya Dane, a modern-day archaeologist, who inherits an isolated house on a remote Scottish island from her estranged father; and then also from the imagined perspective of a Pictish girl living on the island in the Dark Ages.
Freya’s tale starts with her father’s will and her stunned acceptance of the terms. She packs up her life in Sydney and moves across the world to the island of Findnar, not knowing what awaits her. When she arrives she finds that the house really is remote, set halfway across a loch from the town of Portsolly, and then to her surprise she finds that her father has left her a series of clues and enigmatic writings. His unexpected death by drowning has meant that the house looks as if he would walk back in at any second, and Freya finds herself suddenly reexamining their relationship and wondering how things might have worked out. For in reading his diaries, she realises that they are not so dissimilar after all, and comes across a mysterious tale of Viking treasure waiting somewhere in Findnar’s depths.
For her father had uncovered some of Findnar’s past, told through the eyes of Signy, a Pictish girl who lived on the island with her village, of which her father was the shaman. When raiders terrorise the village, she is suddenly alone and must deal with the aftermath herself. She finds an injured Viking boy and nurses him to health, only to find that soon a party of priests and nuns arrive to set up a place of Christian worship. As the three cultures clash, Signy is forced to follow Christian behaviours and it almost kills her. But worse is to come when the Viking boy escapes, and returns with raiders to drive the Christians out.
As Freya delves into Findnar’s past, eyes are watching her from Portsolly. Townspeople old and new are keen to see what she might find, and not all are looking at it from her own perspective. She finds out more than she wanted to about her father’s relationship with the town and its people, but in doing so finds out a lot more about her father, and herself, than she ever considered.
The story is beautifully constructed, with drama both big and small. The depiction of the clash of cultures in the Dark Ages is vivid and thrilling, and even non-archaeologists will find it compelling to accompany Freya along the path of the mystery.
Available now: Simon & Schuster RRP$29.99