Saturday 27 July 2013

Secrets of The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

A multi-generational historical novel set in a beautiful manor house on an island in the Outer Hebrides, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford is a beguiling tale of love, loss and hope – a stunning debut novel.
Scotland, 1860. Reverend Alexander Ferguson, naïve and newly-ordained, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the Hebridean island of Harris. His time on the island will irrevocably change the course of his life, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after Alexander departs. It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child's fragile legs are fused together - a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why?
Ruth needs to solve the mystery of her new home - but the answers to her questions may lie in her own past.
Based on a real letter to the Times by a Victorian schoolmaster reporting a mermaid sighting, Secrets of the Sea House is an epic, sweeping tale of loss and love; hope and redemption; and how we heal ourselves with the stories we tell.  Secrets of the Sea House will be published by Corvus (Atlantic Books) on 6 August 2013.

Secrets of The Sea House is a dual-time novel set on Harris, an island in the Hebrides. The story is played out an old, almost derelict house known locally as The Sea House.    The modern story is related by Ruth who with her husband has bought the Sea House, they intend to renovate it and open it up as a guest house.  Work comes to a halt when the remains of a small child are found, buried deep under the house.  The bones are estimated to be over 100 years old, but it is the fact that the legs of the skeleton are fused together that is most unsettling for Ruth - could this be a 'Selkie', one of the seal people, a mermaid?    Ruth is determined to find out more about her new home and it is when she starts to uncover the story that the reader is introduced to the Reverend Alexander Ferguson who was the parish priest and lived in the Sea House back in 1860.
Harris, The Hebrides

This is a wonderfully colourful and evocative debut novel from an author who clearly knows and loves the Hebrides.  The magical stories of the Selkies are cleverly woven throughout the story, adding to the mythical quality of the story and the flowing prose.

Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has written articles for The Times and The Independent and has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She is married with three children. They live in Kingston on Thames but spend as much time as possible in the Hebrides.   For more information about Elisabeth and her writing, visit

I am delighted to welcome the author, Elisabeth Gifford to the blog today.   Elisabeth has kindly agreed to
Elisabeth Gifford
answer some questions for me.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a biography of a secret agent in war-time Madrid: Man of War, by Duff Hart-Davis. I stumbled across it while trying to find information on a relative who was part of the community around the Madrid British Embassy that smuggled thousands of stranded allied soldiers and Jewish refugees to safety. After the war, none of those concerned ever spoke of it. It’s part of the research for a second novel.
I’m also reading the Story of Before by Susan Stairs, a mystery set in Ireland in the seventies.

Do you read reviews of your novels?
I’m used to getting feedback from the other writers on the Royal Holloway University creative writing MA and that’s been very useful in understanding exactly what your writing is doing and how to hone that. It’s been quite exciting to get reader feedback online and see that people have enjoyed spending time with Alex, Moira and Ruth.

Do you take them seriously?
I have had one interesting point fed back. Secrets of the Sea House looks at what is behind the sea people legends, mermaids and selkies, and I think some readers assume it is completely made up. The mermaid burial and the sightings of seal folk were recorded events. In fact, since writing the book, I’ve found that there’s an archaeological site for a sea people village in Vesteralen. The sea people were very real. It might be a good idea to flag up that up more in the on-line information about the book.

How long does it take to write a novel?
It probably takes about two years in terms of production, but forming an idea can take ten years. The re-drafting process takes much longer than you think it’s going to, but I was really sad when the Sea House was finally finished; I love spending time in the Hebrides and the island of Harris, both on paper and in situ. Part of the pleasure of writing came from wanting the reader to feel ‘there’. Even as part of the UK, the island of Harris and Lewis is a remote place with areas of beautiful wilderness.

Do you have any writing rituals?
I like to go for a walk and spend time imagining a scene or roughly cast it on paper before I get serious. You have to give characters room to breathe, and then they will tell you things.

What was your favourite childhood book?  
Just William. Any Just William book.

Name one book that made you laugh?
Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy had me laughing out loud recently. Kate is a fantastic poet and I wasn’t expecting her novel to be so funny. She is a very talented writer. 

Name one book that made you cry?
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. It’s a love story about two Americans, friends of CS Lewis at Oxford. Even though you know what will happen, when one of them doesn’t survive it still comes as a shock because it’s such an intense read.

Which fictional character would you like to meet?
Just William, or failing that I’d love a Gin and tonic with author Richmal Crompton. When I started writing the Sea House Moira popped up out of nowhere, and she had so much to say; she felt very real. It was a quite strange experience.  I feel I’ve met her.

Which book would you give to your best friend as a present?
The Garden of Evening Mists is a very beautiful read, and also a page-turner with some little known-insights into how the second world war affected Malaysia. I’m such a fan and went to hear Tan Twan Eng speak.

Are you inspired by any particular author or book?
I read Seal Folk by John MacAulay, a history of what lies behind the mermaid sightings in Scotland, several times, almost to pieces. His research, with his permission, was the basis for Secrets of the Sea House. I found out that there was an actual letter to the Times reporting a mermaid sighting through his work. I have a bookcase full of books on Hebrides history and folklore and they feel like old friends now. I loved the autobiography of Finlay MacDonald, Crowdie and Cream. It’s a very funny and touching account of his childhood on Harris in the thirties when people were extremely poor and living an almost subsistence life as crofters. Crowdie and Cream was being filmed in Drinishader village while I was staying there to write. From the cottage I could see characters in costume from the thirties going about their business. It felt like time travel. I read widely and took a lot of notes about the island because I wanted to hold some of the fragile and disappearing culture of the Hebrides in Secrets of the Sea House.

What is your guilty pleasure read?
I don’t feel guilty about anything I read but I do read in different ways. I love detective fiction, especially Ian Rankin. I love story and plot and page-turners as well as evocative and poetic writing.

Who are your favourite authors?
Marilynne Robinson and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are breathtakingly vivid writers.

Which book have your re-read?
I re-read One Hundred years of Solitude for the intensity of the writing, picking apart what Marquez had done to keep the reader so engaged. His characters are off beat, but motivated by such longing that you empathise with them immediately. I read his autobiography and was amazed to find that his life was almost as fantastical as the novel. It made me realise how important it is to have your writing grounded in what’s true and honest in some way.

Which book have you given up on?

I haven’t finished Capital by John Lanchester yet, mainly because I became too interested in one of the story strands and started skipping the rest. But I want to go back and finish it. 

My thanks go to Anna from Atlantic Books for inviting me to take part in the mini blog tour, and for sending my review copy, and also to Elisabeth for taking the time to answer my questions.


  1. Enjoyed this post very much. Thank you.

  2. Fab review Anne, I love the idea of mystery linked in with legend. Will keep a wee eye out for this one