The Island House is an evocative dual time novel, skilfully blending the past and present together through archaeological discoveries and some paranormal activity on a remote windswept Scottish island.
After the sudden death of her estranged father, Freya Dane travels to Findnar, a remote island off the coast of Scotland, to visit the cottage she has inherited. An archaeologist like her late father, she is intrigued by some of the finds he has stored in the cottage's undercroft, as well as an unfinished letter he wrote to Freya shortly before his death, referring to being haunted by vivid visions of the past connected to the island's rich history.
Looking further into the island's past, Freya is soon plagued by visions similar to those of her father's, images of a brutal raid and a young girl in mortal danger. With the help of the local librarian and a young man who had been involved in the incident that took her father's life, Freya sets out to make sense of her father's legacy to her and unravel the secrets of the island's Viking and Christian past.
Switching over to the time period of 800 AD, the novel also tells the story of Signy, a young Pictish girl, who loses her whole family in a Viking raid and is taken in by Findnar's Christian community, who have established a monastery on the island. Magni, a young Viking badly burnt in the sacking of the village, has also been taken in by the charitable nuns and is being nursed back to health. Both being considered pagans and outsiders, the two children form a firm friendship with the dream of returning home to their individual villages one day. However, soon Signy's loyalties are being tested when Christian beliefs challenge those of her ancestors, and Signy becomes a nun herself with the hope of atoning for her sins - ultimately resulting in tragedy for herself and those who are dearest to her.
Reminiscent of Barbara Erskine's novels (such as Lady of Hay), Signy's traumatic past interlinks with Freya's life on the island through paranormal events involving Freya herself and several people she comes into contact with on Findnar. I loved the evocative descriptions of Signy's life and felt myself totally intrigued by the events leading up to the images which have haunted Freya's father and which now torment her. The author manages to seamlessly switch between the past and the present, weaving a rich tale spanning time periods more than a thousand years apart. Her descriptions of the Viking raids are vividly betrayed, as is the clash of Christianity with the animistic religions prevalent in the area at the time, which has dire consequences for Signy. Her struggle to find a balance between the beliefs of her ancestors and the new austere Christian God is very touching, and skilfully portrays the influence of a strict belief system on other cultures.
Scotland also comes alive with the author's evocative descriptions of a bleak, windswept and yet breathtakingly beautiful landscape still shrouded in its colourful past. Reading the book I wanted to jump on the next plane and go there! Setting the opening scene amidst the arrival of a comet in the night skies created an atmosphere of mystery and possibility, which the author skilfully used to link the two parallel storylines. Graeme-Evans' awe for Scotland's past and its harsh beauty shows through her writing, and her descriptions of the landscape and historical events are well researched and portrayed.
Unfortunately parts of the modern-day sections of the novel let me down in its overall enjoyment. As one of the main protagonists, Freya remained remote and distant, a bit of an enigma which I found very hard to relate to. Similarly, the relationships she forms with people around her often seem confusing as they are inconsistent with her guarded and reserved personality. For example, the intense dislike Dan and Freya feel for each other is suddenly seamlessly transformed into affection without any explanation to the reader. Being one of those annoying readers who gets hung up on technicalities I had several "yeah right!" moments when the author stretched credibility a bit too far. I don't pretend to have any knowledge whatsoever about archaeology (apart from watching the Time Team on ABC), but I do have a pretty good grasp of human anatomy - excavating a whole human skeleton out of peat loam single-handedly in one day and bagging it neatly before nightfall was stretching the imagination a bit too far for me (all those bones!).
On a similar note, Freya's archaeological finds get bigger and more fanciful as the novel progresses - I think the story would have worked just as well (or better) with one humble find rather than (SPOILER) an Indiana Jones like scenario towards the end. All modern day characters had huge potential to add depth to the story with their unique personalities, but somehow got lost in translation. I would have loved to see Simon more in the role as the modern-day villain - the novel needed one, and he had initially been set up to fit perfectly into that slot.
All in all, the "Island House" is a pleasurable journey into Scotland's past and makes a light and entertaining summer read. Recommended for fans of Barbara Erskine's dual time novels, and anyone enjoying the concept of the past haunting future generation. In the author's own words: "The past does not die. It waits."