It was the setting that drew me to this book: Kilmarra, a small community in the Highlands of Scotland, close to standing stones that had been there so long that all memory of how and why they had been placed there was long gone.
The story that played out there was like nothing I’ve read for a long time, but that story – and the telling of that story -always had me wanting to keep turning the pages to find out a little more and to live a little more with everything that was happening.
It was absorbing and it was intriguing.
Justine Strang fled Glasgow on a bus to anywhere. She was desperate to escape from Charlie Boy, who had been violent and abusive, who had drawn her into a life that she didn’t want. When she caught sight of the standing stones at Kilmacarra she was drawn to them; she didn’t now why, but she decided to get off the bus.Michael and his wife Hannah moved to Kilmacarra in an attempt to rebuild their lives after her affair. He had been a minister, but he had become a councillor, though he still who preached at the local church.
Hannah was looking to the future; working on a novel and campaigning against plans for wind turbines. Michael was finding things more difficult. He was having a crisis of faith, he was struggling to come to terms with his wife’s infidelity, he was finding it difficult to play all the roles that life was calling him to play, and the ‘ghost’ that spoke to him was becoming more insistent, more human, and much more troubling.
Justine appeared as Michael was faced with a crisis – one of his sons had been badly hurt in a road accident – and so she was able to find herself somewhere to stay – at least for a while – by presenting herself as someone who had worked with children, someone who was willing and able to step into the breach and look after his other boy.
She meant no harm, but Charlie Boy was looking for her, and for the money she had stolen from him; and that might do a great deal of harm.
The story shifts between the different protagonists, always with an unusual and strangely engaging mix of dialogue, stream of consciousness and descriptive prose, and yet always carefully delineated so there is never any doubt who each moment belongs to.
There’s a lot going on – in the background and in the foreground – and Karen Campbell handles it all deftly. There were just a few moments when the drama felt too much, when the elements felt a little unbalanced, but they didn’t really undermine the story.
The style is literary and the reality that underpins the characters, their situations, their worlds, made this feel like a thriller. I was drawn in, I cared, I believed, even though I wasn’t sure that I liked these people, or would care to meet them in real life. Because, I think, the text was underpinned by the author’s love for her characters and their concerns, for their country’s history and its future
It helped that she balanced the seriousness of the story with some lovely wit, the kind that comes naturally when people live and work together and know each other well.
The contrasts are what really struck me. Local dialect is mixed with 21st century profanity. The ugliness and violence found in the big city contrast with the beauty of the village in the glen. The past – in the standing stones and an archaeological dig – it set against the future – the referendum is to come, and a wind farm may be coming too.
That, together with the gloriously expressive prose and the unfolding human drama, held me from start to finish.