The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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February 7, 2013

The blackhouse

The Barvas road wound up out of Stornoway, leaving behind spectacular views toward Coll and Loch a Tuath and Point, sunlight corruscating across the bay, torn clouds chasing their own shadows over the deep, blue water. Ahead lay twelve miles of bleak moorland as the road straightened out and took them northwest toward the tiny settlement of Barvas on the west coast. It was a brooding landscape that in a moment of sunlight could be unexpectedly transformed. Fin knew the road well, in all seasons, and had never ceased to marvel at how the interminable acres of featureless peatbog could change by the month, the day, or even the minute. The dead straw colour of winter, the carpets of tiny white spring flowers, the dazzling purples of summer. To their right the sky had blackened, and rain was falling somewhere in the hinterland. To their left the sky was almost clear, summer sunlight falling across the land, and they could see in the distance the pale outline of the mountains of Harris. Fin had forgotten how big the sky was here.

Peter May's mystery novel, The Blackhouse, was recommended so often by our UK blogging friends that it went on my reading list long before it came out in the U.S. (it just did).  {I have a source, now, for some of the books that are just dangled teasingly before us, but mostly I just hope.}  If it weren't for those recommendations, I'm not sure I would have been drawn to it, but I'm so glad I was. It's excellent.

Most of the book is set in the Outer Hebrides, the islands off the western coast of Scotland. I didn't know much (anything, really) about them, except that they sounded kind of romantic.  In the book, they come across as remote, stormy, tradition and religion-bound, and sometimes beautiful.  {The other day, I was watching something on PBS and when it was over the U.K. edition of Antiques Roadshow came on. I love to watch it, even more than ours, but this time I was half out of the room, and not really paying attention, when I heard the host talking about their first visit to Stornoway.  I was just in time to see an aerial view of the setting of this book. Perfect!

Fin Macleod, a homicide detective from Edinburgh, is sent back to the village of Crobost, where he grew up, when a grisly murder there has elements in common with a unsolved murder Fin was investigating. The second victim is a man, ironically  named Angel, who tormented Fin and his friends when they were children.  We  know very early in the book that Fin and his wife Mona have just lost their child, and their marriage is foundering, but we don't know exactly what happened till much later.  That's the way Fin's story unfolds throughout the book.  We know early on that his parents have died, that he left Crobost to go to university, and that in the 18 years since he has never been back.  The past is told in alternating chapters with the present, and that's a style of novel-writing that doesn't always seem to work for me, but it was OK here.  Fin is a very sympathetic character, and as it turns out, what happened in the past, and the people it happened to, are central to what is happening in the present.  One of the central threads is the annual harvest of 'the gaga,' a strange and dangerous trip by twelve men and boys to a remote island to gather and kill their allowance of 2,000 birds, as a local delicacy and an unbreakable tradition.

It's possible that the twists and turns that happened at the end piled up a little too much on each other, but I was reading the last chapters on the bus on the way home from work, and I was kind of glad we ran into traffic, so I had enough time to see things resolved.

The Blackhouse is the first book in a trilogy, and I'm hoping I won't have to wait too long to find out what happens next.

{Painting found here.}

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