The Curiosity Cabinet by Catherine Czerkawska

On a cold, dark winter evening, it was lovely to be swept away, to a Hebridean island that Catherine Czerkawska named Garve:

“The island is full of flowers. Ashore, Alys knows that honeysuckle will clutter the hedgerows like clotted cream, weaving a dense tapestry with marching lines of purple foxgloves. Earlier in the year there would have been clumps of thrift, a wild rock garden defining all the bays. Later, meadowsweet will fill the hedges and ditches. But now there will be pink roses and yellow irises. There will be nut-brown boats drawn up on the pale sand, and dress-suited oystercatchers patrolling among the seaweed. As the ferry comes to shore, she notices that the sea around Garve is still that shade of turquoise that she has seen nowhere else. The light is different here; the colours are brighter and more luminous. None of that has changed. It is the same as it always was.”

Alys Miller came to visit Garve while her eight year-old son was away with his father and new stepmother in Italy. She had so many memories of childhood holidays on island, but the holiday when Alys had invited a friend who didn’t enjoy the island and the outdoor life, when a delicate balance had been disturbed, was the last family holiday on Garve. She hadn’t been back since then.

Alys  fell in love with her island all over again, and then she met Donal McNeill, the island boy who had been a good friend to her and her brother. She was so pleased that he remembered her, he appreciated her love of his island, and they had many memories to share.

11850918This was the beginning of a very real love story, complicated because each had their own history and complications in different parts of the country.

That story was told beautifully, with sensitivity and understanding. These people and their lives were real; they were fallible and they were fragile.

I was so very taken with that story that I was disappointed when I realised that it was going to be told with another story, set on Garve many years earlier. But I was soon every bit as interested in that story.

Towards the end of the 17th century Henrietta Dalrymple, a wealthy young widow, was kidnapped and brought to Garve, the prisoner of island chieftain Manus McNeill . She was distraught,  and she was grief-stricken at being parted from her infant son. Manus regrets what he did, but he knows that he had his reasons, and that what had been done cannot be undone.

In time Henrietta learns that she must accept her fate and that she has to live a different life. Manus admires that, and he does what he can to support her in her new life. at first they are wary of each other, but slowly another love story begins to unfold.

It’s a more unlikely story that the first, but I believed that these people lived and breathed, and their emotions and their actions were so very real.

The two stories are linked by a curiosity cabinet.  It was a lovely thing:  a casket, lined with fabric embroidered with images of island birds and flowers, and full of small treasures.

“Here is a miniature shuttle, prettily embroidered with gold, and with a few discoloured threads still attached. Here is  needlelace collar, very fine and floral. Here is a tiny pincushion, a painted silk fan and a coral teether. On another shelf is a hand mirror, intricately decorated with semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers: forget-me-nots and pansies. Alongside these precious keepsakes, she is puzzled to see a little collection of pebbles and shells and swansdown. Finally there is a scrap of yellowed paper, with a few words of incomprehensible writing: a letter? A poem?”

I thought for a moment of the cabinet of treasures in Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘The Scent of Water’ but I was too involved with the stories told in this book to think for long.

The ties between past and present are loose, and completely uncontrived. It’s simply that the same object is present in both periods, that there are some things that don’t change in time, and that there are gentle likenesses in the two stories.

The island Garve, is at the centre of both stories and it is captured perfectly. It is so easy to see the landscape, to feel the weather, to understand the difference in the air, in the way of life. The perceptions of two women, centuries apart, who came to the island, who formed relationships with island men,  and with the island itself, who feel the pull of an absent child, are lovely to read.

The writing is lovely too, catching the magic and the reality of life, with both small and bold brushstrokes.

“The island reminds her of those magic painting books. The shop here used to sell them. You would dip your brush in water and pale, clear colours would emerge from the page, as this green and blue landscape is emerging from the mist.”

The storytelling lives up into all of this; I was captivated, and I wasn’t entirely sure how the story would play out until the very last page.

It was the right ending but I was sorry to leave, and I would so love to go back to Garve and to the people I met there ….