As Wessex was to Hardy, so was the storm-battered coast of NE Scotland to Neil Gunn: a world he loved so well and a world he was able to evoke with such great literary skill. In this novel, the action moves steadily on through episodes of passion and drama, as we are made to wait for the certainties of what actually happened to the foreign seaman when he was hauled from the sea by Charlie, and to the contents of his chest.
All the major characteristics of the Gunn novels are there: masterful descriptions of stormy headlands and peaceful moors; deft character sketches of the modern descendants of the resiliant Highland victims of nineteenth-century injustice; the dour and authoritarian church minister who will not relinquish his power over the community. Purists may find it disconcerting as Gunn takes us into the mind of one character after another, rather than dwelling with only one, but the effect is to open the community as a whole to our scrutiny and understanding.
There is an element of romantic love in the storm-tossed relationship between Charlie and the minister's daughter Flora, but Gunn is probably at his best when writing about boys and the sea, and it is at the point where young Norrie and Hamish become lost in the darkness of the stormy headland that the action finally moves into top gear. There follows a hazardous attempt to rescue Charlie and Flora from the the Stormy Isles, when Gunn excels in re-creating the dangers and ironies of venturing down to the sea in small boats, and all this is due to an inspired guess as to their whereabouts by one of the boys.
Gunn enthusiasts should make sure that they read this one!