Today we have another Review-A-Book Challenger, Claire can be found on Instagram here @saintorrow
Claire has been reading The Mermaid And The Bear by Ailish Sinclair
The Mermaid and The Bear is a whimsical title and although the first half of the story does weigh a little heavy on the whimsy (in the most delightful way), it is certainly intriguing in equal measure. For this is definitely a tale of two halves. Set in Scotland in the late 1500s at the height of the witch trials, I began the book knowing what direction it was going to go in but was hooked from the start with the exciting opening line, “The first time the sea killed me, my brother brought me back to life.” The heroine, Isobell, describes her sea sickness as she travels with her twin, Jasper and his friend, Ian. It becomes clear that they are in fact, escaping, as we are told of their arrival after dark by boat at the castle, which is central to the story. Secret tunnels, hidden doorways and shadowy figures drew me in to a whole other world immediately.
Isobell is a sweet and relatable character, on the run from her betrothed – an abusive man who is in cahoots with her father and nasty older brother. She must take on a new life and act the part of kitchen assistant in the castle, but the cook, Bessie, quickly susses her out and takes her under her wing. However, she also has Agnes to contend with, the spiteful, self-proclaimed governess to Wee Thomas, The Laird’s son.
My interest in reading this book was very much with regards to the witch trials, however the first half of the book is quite a sumptuous love story: Isobell’s love for the gorgeous Scottish landscape is second only to the growing love she feels for the Laird. I’m not a big love story fan, but Sinclair writes beautifully and manages to avoid any kind of cringiness. Plus, Isobell is portrayed so brilliantly that you can’t help but root for her – yes, she’s sweet but she’s no fool, and she deserves her prince.
What I found interesting was the very real and true depiction of how accusations of witchery came about. There were no pointed hats and broomsticks, frogs or cauldrons – often only a plain dislike or mistrust, as well as jealousy of women with knowledge or wisdom (particularly in relation to healing and herbalism). And that is exactly what unravels between Agnes towards Isobell and Bessie. I will say no more, but from the midpoint onwards, the story hurtles onto a very different trajectory from the initial dreaminess of Isobell’s seemingly magical new life. There is always the gnawing feeling that her past will catch up with her, but how it plays out is genuinely terrifying. It struck me as a grim parallel with today’s politics of polarization and finger-pointing, and as a reader, it was easy to empathise with the nightmarish quality of what transpires.
I loved this book much more than I thought I would. It has a depth that I did not expect but at the same time, it had an open-heartedness and generosity that I’m not used to when compared to my usual contemporary fiction reading. I think Ailish Sinclair is a wonderful writer and managed to keep true to history in a way that some more well-known authors who have chosen to write about this increasingly popular subject matter of the witch trials – both in the UK and the USA – do not always manage. She has clearly done her research and literal groundwork, which comes through vividly via her knowledge and descriptions of the Aberdeenshire landscape. I follow her on Instagram, and it is great to get a peek into her writer’s mind, her inspiration, and mythic gnosis of the land. Someday, I’d love to visit that beautiful pink castle and the mystical stone circle which are both as much lead characters as Isobell. Looking forward to the second novel to come from this talented author in Spring 2021, Fireflies and Chocolate.
Isobell needs to escape. She has to. Her life depends on it.
She has a plan and it’s a well thought-out, well observed plan, to flee her privileged life in London and the cruel man who would marry her, and ruin her, and make a fresh start in Scotland.
She dreams of faery castles, surrounded by ancient woodlands and misty lochs… and maybe even romance, in the dark and haunted eyes of a mysterious Laird.
Despite the superstitious nature of the time and place, her dreams seem to be coming true, as she finds friendship and warmth, love and safety. And the chance for a new beginning…
Until the past catches up with her.
Set in the late sixteenth century, at the height of the Scottish witchcraft accusations, The Mermaid and the Bear is a story of triumph over evil, hope through adversity, faith in humankind and – above all – love.