When you read as much as I do, you develop a bit of an instinct for books you just know are going to be something rather special. I was excited about Dark Water by Sara Bailey from the moment I first read about it – who could resist “a psychologically intense portrait of adolescent yearning and obsession”? I was attracted too by the publisher – I’ve already mentioned the wonderful books being published by Blackbird Books, and this book marks the launch of their new publishing imprint Nightingale Editions. I love their mission statement:
We aim to publish unique, original voices, voices which will endure. We believe in nurturing writers’ careers and will publish only those who are deeply committed to their craft, to honing their own talent and thrilling readers with their ‘song’.
I have very little doubt that I’ll be featuring their output quite regularly here on Being Anne. And – although I’m not really at all a cover girl – the cover of this book with its colours, wild sea and shadowy figure in the foreground would make anyone pick it up from the shelf. And as another example of a publisher getting everything just right, there’s the wonderfully sparse “blurb”:
When Helena returns to her childhood home in Orkney to care for her father after a heart attack, she is forced to face memories that she has spent half a lifetime running from. Still haunted by the disappearance of her blood-sister, Anastasia – who vanished during a daredevil swimming incident – Helena must carefully navigate the island that made her, and the old faces that still ask: what really happened that night by the wrecks?
Of course, all this would count for nothing should the novel not live up to the promise – but, my word, it most certainly does. If I was excited before reading it, I’m even more excited now I have. Sara Bailey might be a debut novelist, but there is nothing about this book that would give you any idea that was the case. From the moment Helena steps off the plane taking her from her high- powered London life to her childhood home of Orkney – in her high heels, cinched waist jacket and unsuitable matching beret – I was enthralled. I’m sometimes not the greatest fan of coming-of-age stories – but this book is very much more than that. The story is told in dual time – the present day, as Helen visits both her seriously ill father and her memories, and a contemporary account of her teenage years of intense friendship and yearning. Both threads are totally compelling, the past and present blurring as each offers illumination of the other.
The Orkney setting is vividly and perfectly drawn – the landscape and seascape, but also the claustrophobic feeling of everyone knowing what you’ve done almost before you’ve done it. There are so many wonderful touches – like the casual acceptance of Helen’s return after so many years with an “aye aye”, and the problems of keeping anything at all private (however sensitive or personal) – capturing the realities of living in a community where everyone feels entitled to comment on everything you do and offer their advice (I was brought up in a small Welsh village – this community felt totally real to me). Every character is drawn in exquisite detail, even those on the periphery of the story – and the relationships between them vividly real and beautifully observed. The intensity of teenage female friendship is magnificently portrayed – with that need for exclusivity, to be the most important part in each others’ lives, but with that thin line between love and something other. There are many points in this book that will make you smile – but it also has a spine-chilling atmosphere and a sense of dread pervading the whole. The story itself is all-consuming as you read, with an intensity I’ve rarely encountered. The portrayal of grief and loss is deeply moving. The outcome wasn’t what I expected, but so much better than that – perfectly judged and executed.
I’m really pleased my instinct didn’t fail me. This was a unique and unforgettable book that I’d recommend to all.
Dark Water is published by Nightingale Editions on 3rd October, available in paperback and for kindle (just 99p on pre-order). My thanks to Jacqui Lofthouse of Nightingale Editions for providing my e-copy, and for including me in the blog tour. Do follow the other stops… I’m really looking forward to seeing what others felt…
About the author
Dr Sara Bailey left Orkney to go to London aged 16. After working in a variety of different jobs from mortuary attendant to stage manager on Les Miserables, she studied part time and went on to University. She has an MA in Women’s History, an MA in Creative Writing as well as a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing.
Her first book was published by Bloomsbury in 2013, Writing the Horror Movie, which she co-authored whilst hiding behind a cushion.
In the 80’s she saw a lot of bands and married a keyboard player from Spandau Ballet, with whom she has two children. Divorced but still friends, she has recently returned to Orkney and married an Orcadian. Dark Water is her first novel and heavily inspired by the islands she has returned to.
Follow Sara Bailey on Twitter.
Read Sara Bailey’s personal blog about living and writing in Orkney.