I’m always a little wary of books written by people in the public eye – Kirsty Wark is far more familiar as a broadcaster – but having heard the author talking about the book in a number of radio interviews I was intrigued by the story and wanted to try it. My expectations weren’t particularly high at the start – I was rather expecting it to be a little dry and scholarly – but within a few pages I was swept up by the excellent writing and the beautiful story.
The book is set in two time frames, and the stories alternate. Elizabeth Pringle’s story – told through her journal – begins at the time of the First World War, when she moves with her mother from their farm to a house called Holmlea in Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. We follow Elizabeth’s life, her relationship with her mother and their friend the Duchess of Montrose, her passion for gardening – and relationships built, lost and continuing. In later life she becomes a solitary figure, with two firm friends – Niall, an architect who shares her passion for gardening, and Saul, a Buddhist monk on Holy Isle. Just before her death, she writes a letter to a stranger – a young girl she had watched pushing her baby in a pram over 30 years ago, and who had asked her to let her know if she ever planned to leave her home.
A long time ago, almost thirty-four years past, you wrote to me requesting that I contact you should I ever wish to leave my home. I knew then that I would never live anywhere else, and so there was no point in my replying to you.
I saw you almost every day, pushing your pram along Shore Road. You looked very young. I remember that on one occasion you waved to me, and I think I tilted my head towards you. Perhaps you did not see. There have been times when that scene has come to me vividly, and I have wondered what has become of you both.
I am instructing my solicitor to write to you at the address on your letter. Holmlea is yours if you still wish it.
Anna, the young girl then pushing the pram, now has dementia and it falls to Martha – then the baby – to take up the legacy and discover Elizabeth’s secrets, resolving some of her own family issues along the way.
There were so many things I loved about this book. The setting is quite wonderful, drawn in great detail by someone who clearly loves the Isle of Arran and knows it well. Descriptions feature heavily in this book – I loved the detail about Holmlea, and the way in which everything in it revealed a little more about Elizabeth herself. Elizabeth’s story is quite engrossing – through her life, we share her passions and friendships, and finally share her one big secret that shaped her life. The modern story is also strong – we see Martha picking up Elizabeth’s friendships with Niall and Saul, and the difficulties of her fraught relationship with her sister Susie and the handling of her mother’s dementia were beautifully handled. I really like the way in which the book focuses on the issues in women’s lives, their universality, but the way in which the changing times have affected how they are handled.
I’ve read other reviews of this book, implying that the author’s transition from journalism to story-telling might not have been entirely successful: I really don’t agree, I enjoyed the writing and thought it was an excellent flowing story, quite captivating, and perfectly paced. Another review recommended it to anyone who liked Maggie O’Farrell – high praise indeed, and the comparison really works for me. Yes, I really liked it that much – do give it a try.
Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who hosts a variety of BBC programmes including Newsnight and The Review Show, as well as many arts documentaries and interviews. Her home has always been in Scotland although she has spent much of her working life commuting to London. Her family’s connection to Arran and her affinity with the island go back a long way. At present she is working on her second novel.