Monday, May 19, 2014

"The Sea House"

Elisabeth Gifford studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has published poems in Cinnamon Press and The Oxford Magazine, and a story in Riptide. She has written articles for The Times and The Independent. She has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the course led by Sir Andrew Motion at Royal Holloway College.

Gifford applied the Page 69 Test to The Sea House, her debut novel, and reported the following:
If you open The Sea House at page 69 you’ll find crofter Ishbel MacOdrum some 200 years ago as she discovers a seal man half dead on the beach of her remote Scottish island. She hides his seal skins away so that he is left entirely human. Later, they marry and have a child. But the seal man finds the seal skins’ hiding place and so returns to the sea and is gone.

Legends of Selkies are told from Orkney to Ireland and I was amazed to find that in an unexpected way the seal people stories are really a form of very old oral history, perhaps recording sealskin kayakers who may have visited the islands from the far north up to 200 years ago.

The Sea House is also inspired by a real letter to the Times in 1809 reporting a mermaid sighting by a Scots schoolmaster. Gaelic historian John MacAulay thinks such sightings may also be linked to sightings of the now extinct tribe of kayakers who used to travel down from Norway’s Arctic region.

The book was written during an MA in creative writing. I wanted to catch the wild beauty of those remote islands where Scots Gaelic is still spoken and the crofting culture still has a tenuous hold. In the book, Ishbel’s descendant, Reverend Alexander, lives in a white house by the sea - but something unspeakable takes place there in spite of his intentions to be a good man.

A hundred years later a couple begin to renovate the dilapidated house and uncover the bones of a baby with its legs fused together like a mermaid child. In tracing back the story of what happened to the child and the legends of the sea people it becomes clear that stories have a unique power to convey deep truths and even heal those who have the courage to tell their own story.
Visit Elisabeth Gifford's website.

--Marshal Zeringue