Sandra Ireland – Sight Unseen
Published by Polygon Books, paperback £8.99. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes.
First, the official blurb: 1648. Alie Gowdie marries Richard Webster during a turbulent time in Scotland’s history. Charles I is about to lose his head, and little does Alie know that she too will meet a grisly end within the year. 2019. Sarah Sutherland is struggling to cope with the demands of her day job, caring for her elderly father and keeping tabs on her backpacking daughter. She wanted to be an archaeologist, but now in her forties, she is divorced, alone, and there seems to be no respite, no glimmer of excitement on the horizon. However, she does have a special affinity with the Kilgour Witch, Alie Gowdie, who lived in Sarah’s cottage until her execution in 1648, and Sarah likes nothing better than to retreat into a world of sorcery, spells and religious fanaticism. Her stories delight tourists as she leads them along the cobbled streets of her home town, but what really lies behind the tale of Alie Gowdie, the Kilgour Witch? Can Sarah uncover the truth in order to right a centuries-old wrong? And what else might modern-day Kilgour be hiding, just out of sight?
I first came across Sandra Ireland when I was reviewing crime fiction and the Scotland on Sunday books editor handed me a copy of Bone Deep with a wordcount and a deadline. It turned out to be a first-rate novel, rich and interesting and with a delightful Gothic sensibility. Now we have witches in Sight Unseen, tagged as the first in a series featuring Sarah Sutherland, supermarket manager, storyteller and amateur historian.
We open with Sarah dealing – or trying to deal – with warehouse worker Grant Tranter. That doesn’t go particularly well, but at least she no longer has to think about him. She does have to think about her father, John, who is in his 90s and starting to struggle with losing his sight, and possibly more, as he sees thin, pale figures in his home, silent and ghostly. He hasn’t told her about them, but he is having other strange experiences that she does know about and worry about. She also worries about daughter Hannah, who is travelling in Cambodia and India and only in intermittent contact with her mother. Finally we see Sarah at home, which is an ancient weaver’s cottage much-photographed by curious tourists – she’s more than happy to talk to them about one of its former occupants in particular, Alisoune (Alie) Gowdie, married to Robert Webster in 1648 according to the carved lintel – and burned as a witch.
This is the cornerstone of her second job: Sarah Sutherland, Storyteller, say her business cards when she swaps the sensible suit for a dramatic dress and black cloak and steps out for Mrs Sutherland’s Magical Witch Walks in the small Scottish town of Kilgour. Alie Gowdie features heavily, with various points of the town visited as Sarah unrolls the tale. In this section you feel both the depth of research and Ireland’s gift for bringing the story to the fore, wearing that research lightly – and a few tongue-in-cheek comments on how to manipulate a story and an audience.
Sarah was an archaeology student, though she never finished her degree, and remains fascinated by – in some ways obsessed by – the past. Her friend Charlotte works at the town’s museum, and shares a new donation: a box of papers found in an attic, including the diaries of Rev William Wilkie, minister in 1648, the town’s worst period for witch trials. Zealous in his dedication to ridding the parish of anything ungodly, he declares: “We will not suffer a witch to live.”
Meanwhile, in the day job, Sarah contends with a new cleaner at the supermarket who is both marvellously industrious and worryingly introverted – and then having arranged for a carer to visit her father regularly, it turns out the agency has sent none other than new employee Grant. So much for getting rid of him. But John likes his company, and trusts him enough to talk about the weird figures he sees.
I’m not entirely convinced by the speed of Sarah’s thawing towards Grant (though Sarah’s reactions and second thoughts ring absolutely true), but it sparks an uptick in the pace as they explore Lumsdain House, originally set up by Rev Wilkie as a paupers’ hospital, and find disturbing carvings in a door frame – an attempt at keeping a witch out? Or something – or someone – else? And what is happening to the child who features in some short sections interspersed in the narrative, who talks of strange places and people?
The answers are found to John’s ghosts – though the novel doesn’t entirely go where you think it will. We also find out about the little girl, and the secret the supermarket cleaner is keeping. While all this is a very real issue in Scotland, I’m not sure it’s as complementary a sub-plot as it might be, but it’s deftly and sympathetically done, with a neat twist.
Sarah’s hold on Alie’s story remains strong as she reads the final entries in Rev Wilkie’s diary – and the ending to his story is a Gothic delight of a scene which made me laugh out loud.
Sight Unseen is on the cosier side of crime fiction, with the deaths on its pages being centuries past. But the modern crimes perpetrated are serious ones, and Sarah’s empathy towards both the ancient and modern victims ties the threads together well. She seems at the start of the novel to be an unlikely protagonist, but Sarah is so relatable that by the end I was convinced she was the perfect character to tell this tale. And Ireland’s touch of the Gothic, and the genuinely chilling moments she creates, are both ingenious and addictive.
Alie Gowdie is not a real 17th century figure – Ireland says in a note at the end of the novel that her story is an amalgam of several stories – but there were many women who really were feared, shunned, persecuted and murdered in Scotland in the period. There is a campaign pushing to win pardons for all those accused and convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1563-1736, and you can find more about it here: www.witchesofscotland.com