Women of the Dunes, by Sarah Maine

>> Friday, October 12, 2018

TITLE: Women of the Dunes
AUTHOR: Sarah Maine

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary, 19th and 9th century Western Scotland
TYPE: Fiction

On the rugged, sea-lashed coast of west Scotland lies Ullaness: home to the Scottish legend of Ulla, a Viking woman who washed up on Scottish shores centuries ago. The legend will bring the stories of three different women together...

In AD 800 there is Ulla, lost in a foreign country after her lover is brutally killed. Ellen, a servant-girl in the 1800s, catches the unwanted attentions of the master of the house's lascivious son. And, in the present day, there is Libby - an archaeologist who is determined to uncover an age-old mystery.

When a body is excavated from Ullaness - the body of someone who was murdered long ago - the mystery deepens, and the fates of the three women become ever more tightly bound.
Just like The Boundless Deep, which I recently reviewed, this is the kind of book I love, a story about women in different time periods, their lives tied together in some way.

In the present day, Libby Snow is an archaeologist. She's soon to be part of a project to excavate a burial mound in the remote island of Ullaness, in the West Coast of Scotland. Libby has a personal connection to the area: as a child she spent a lot of time in Nova Scotia with her grandmother, who loved to tell young Libby stories passed on by her own grandmother, Ellen, who had been born in Ullanness herself.

Ellen had worked as a domestic servant in the manor, and she was the one who immigrated to Canada at some point in the 19th century. Ellen loved to entertain her granddaughter with stories about the island's legend, which featured a 9th century viking woman, Ulla, and a monk Odrhan (her lover? protector? friend?), and in turn, granny passed all those on to Libby. But Ellen also spoke about other things, including mentions of a "murder that had been done", and Libby has heard of those as well.

A few weeks before the dig is due to start, Libby decides to pay a quick visit to the island. Mostly it's that she wants to get the lay of the land, but there's something else on her mind. She's recently received from her grandmother a clearly very old cross, something that is supposed to have come from Ellen. And the cross is suspiciously similar to a chalice that used to be part of a medieval cache found on Ullaness, and which has been recently stolen in a mysterious burglary. Libby is a bit worried. How did Ellen come to have the cross? Did she steal it? She's not quite sure what she should do with it, but part of her hopes visiting the island will give her some ideas.

But the visit to Ullaness is more eventful than she was expecting. First an unexpected meeting with Rodri Sturrock, brother to the man who owns the manor and the land the excavation is supposed to take place on. Rodri is his brother's agent, and the bloody-minded man Libby and her colleagues have had so much trouble getting agreement from. And then, after a bit of a storm, Libby discovers a body in the area her team is meant to excavate. It's not a recent one, likely Victorian. And suddenly Libby is remembering Ellen's mutterings about murder.

Most of the time is spent in the present with Libby (and Rodri), but interspersed with her story, we get the story of Ulla and her monk, as well as that of Ellen. The former is very short, but the latter is a lot more developed. Ellen is a maid at the big house, and when the two sons of of the house arrive, it's a mix of good and bad news. One is a predatory piece of shit, and she's rightfully scared of him, while the other is a very nice, caring man, and Ellen has a bit of a crush on him.

I particularly enjoyed the present-day story, which is what takes up the biggest proportion of the book. Libby quickly becomes entangled in the lives of Rodri and two women, Alice and Maddy, who are his friends and business partners. They become her friends, actually, and it was really nice to see. Libby is not the most deeply developed character ever, but there's certainly the impression that she's been a bit lonely in the past. Growing up she was quite unmoored from family, forever moving between different relatives, so being adopted by these people is a new experience for her, and clearly one she enjoys.

The stakes in this section are not really about the investigation into the past. I had expected the events of Ellen and Ulla's lives to have some bearing on Libby and her life, but they don't really. In the present-day section, the big thing that's going on is the threat to Rodri and his friends and to the estate itself from Rodri's brother and his wife, who are seemingly determined to bleed the place dry. There are some surprises there, and some of them are unexpectedly dramatic (possibly in a way that didn't quite go with the tone of the book that well).

The mirroring I was expecting in Libby's life actually takes place mainly between Ulla's story and Ellen's. The patterns repeat themselves there, and both are very sad stories. We know things will end in tragedy, given Libby's find, but not quite how. I was a bit less interested in these stories, but they were ok.

On the whole, this was quite an enjoyable read.



Darlynne 13 October 2018 at 18:47  

I was thinking of getting the audio version because the book sounded intriguing. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it. Thanks!

Darlynne 13 October 2018 at 18:49  

My comment worked! I have not been able to post comments here for, sheesh, many months. Must be my new computer. I feel so much better now. Carry on.

Rosario 14 October 2018 at 15:48  

Hi Darlynne, oh no, has the blog's comment function been misbehaving? I thought things had just been quiet :) Anyway, I hope you enjoy this one!

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