Wednesday, 7 September 2011
Book Review: "The Sands of Carsaig" by Samantha J Wright
"Raised on the Isle of Mull in the middle of the nineteenth century, Lorna McFadden is surrounded by change. Not only is the wild and beautiful coastline subject to constant variation, the economic climate is vastly unstable. At the age of sixteen her pattern of life seems set on an unalterable course of hardship and poverty with no hope of anything better. Then one tragedy after another strikes, robbing Lorna of her beloved grandfather and threatening her family's livelihood. Against the backdrop of famine and the highland clearances Lorna battles the odds, seeking love and a new life elsewhere. They say that every cloud has a silver lining, but for Lorna it seems that tragedy may lead to something infinitely more valuable. This is a powerful debut novel from Samantha J Wright, a heart wrenching story about a love lost and found, about one couple's battle against the odds."
Samantha J Wright has created a sweeping historical romance set against the vastly contrasting backdrops of Highland Scotland and young Australia.
Throughout, this is a book which stays true to its central vision: portraying characters who struggle through adversity towards success, without succumbing to the temptation to join society at large in repressing weaker individuals.
There is a lovely duality between the Scottish and Australian sections of the novel. Both depict expansive, hostile landscapes which grant a grudging existence to human denizens of both old world and new. Both depict societies with a pitiless upper class and injured lower classes, and both have crisis points when the boundaries between classes are blurred.
The two central crises of the novel are the confusion and heartache that results from Alex Carnegie elevating Lorna above her natural station; and the death and thievery that occurs when Daniel McKay leaves the aborigine Jonny in charge of the goldmine. Both incidents show the inherent kindness of the characters in attempting to help those less fortunate, but the disasters that occur show that society's ills are not so readily cured.
As the main characters struggle for survival, so too do those around them, with many resorting to theft, murder and deception to get their way. In Australia, those who were at the bottom end of society in the old world find that they can perpetuate the injustices of their homeland: with themselves in the role of oppressors subjugating the aborigines. They become physically better off, but the price is moral bankruptcy.
The main characters are remarkably untouched by the violence around them, and their steadfastness proves Wright's point that it is not enough to survive in a harsh environment, you must live well and break the cycle of violence and injustice.
Wright has completed an impressive amount of research for this novel, and certain elements of the book, for example the prison ship crossing to Australia, are richer for it.
The themes and wild imagery are strong in the novel, but I feel it would have benefitted greatly from a tighter editing process. The main characters really needed to be fleshed out more, and more time spent in their heads rather than being told what they did/said/felt by an omniscient narrator. I would have liked more time spent on some key aspects of the characters' lives, for example how Lorna's training altered her, and I would have liked to see a more uncomfortable reintegration for her at Carnegie house, which would have been consistent with the themes of the book.