Book Review: The Watch House by Bernie McGill


TheWatchHouseAbout the Book

As the twentieth century dawns on the island of Rathlin, a place ravaged by storms and haunted by past tragedies, Nuala Byrne is faced with a difficult decision. Abandoned by her family for the new world, she receives a proposal from the island’s aging tailor. For the price of a roof over her head, she accepts. Meanwhile the island is alive with gossip about the strangers who have arrived from the mainland, armed with mysterious equipment which can reportedly steal a person’s words and transmit them through thin air. When Nuala is sent to cook for these men – engineers, who have been sent to Rathlin by Marconi to conduct experiments in the use of wireless telegraphy – she encounters an Italian named Gabriel, who offers her the chance to equip herself with new skills and knowledge. As her friendship with Gabriel opens up horizons beyond the rocky and treacherous cliffs of her island home, Nuala begins to realise that her deal with the tailor was a bargain she should never have struck.

Format: Paperback Publisher: Tinder Press Pages: 368
Publication: 10th Aug 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction    

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My Review

Separated from her family who have emigrated to Newfoundland, Nuala thinks marriage will give her, if nothing else, security and a house of her own. Instead she finds herself saddled with a husband – the Tailor – many years her senior and unfulfilled both physically and emotionally: ‘I’m as trapped on this island, in this house, as I ever was before.’ Not to mention the Tailor’s malevolent sister, Ginny, who treats Nuala like a skivvy.

Intelligent, resourceful and relatively well-educated, Nuala finds herself constrained by her situation, social expectations and the customs of the islands.    With her knowledge of healing and herbal remedies, handed down from her grandparents, she also has a sort of otherworldly quality being sensitive to the echoes, whether real or imagined, of those who have gone before on the island. I loved the distinctive voice the author created for Nuala, capturing the rhythm of island dialect.

I found the juxtaposition of past and present in the book really fascinating. The Marconi engineers are bringing cutting edge wireless communication technology to the island yet this is an island that can be cut off for days by bad weather.   It’s the turn of the century and there is a sense of change, of a new era on the horizon but there is an equally strong sense of the islanders resisting this change, questioning the need for it.

The history of the island is also evident in the ancient place names, the stories etched into its caves and stones, and the unchanging rhythm of island life.

‘I stand on Crocknascreidlin and watch the boat come in. It’s a good place to stand, on the hill of the screaming women, above the dark hollow of Lagavistevoir. They’re as loud as they were when Drake’s men came and slaughtered all the men of the island. I am silent. I let them scream for me. They’re keening for my heart.’

Everything changes for Nuala when chance brings her into daily contact with the engineers installing the new technology: ‘They are Marconi’s men, come to catapult their words out over the sea.’ Nuala feels an immediate connection with one of the engineers, an Italian called Gabriel, who recognises Nuala’s potential and teaches her to use the telegraphy equipment.   The development of their friendship brings with it consequences that create a wonderfully intense and dramatic story that will also surprise you as events take an unexpected turn. I was strongly reminded of the film Ryan’s Daughter, with its passionate love story and breathtaking scenery.

As well as a wonderfully involving story, I loved the way the author explored themes of communication and translation. Nuala and the other islanders struggle to understand and are suspicious of the concept of wireless communication.

‘Ginny says it’s not right to separate a person from their words, to put that much sea between the two. A body could say anything then and feel no responsibility for it. Who’s to say, she says, that at that remove, those words belonged to a person at all? […] A word is a thing to keep close, always, she says.’

Gabriel, as a native Italian speaker but almost fluent in English, is fascinated by the Gaelic language and the meaning of words. ‘He’s thinking about translation. He’s thinking about the dots and dashes and the chart of the [Morse] code that hangs on the watch house wall.’ Morse code comes to form an important role in Gabriel’s and Nuala’s relationship.

In her fascinating afterword, Bernie McGill writes, ‘As a fiction writer, I am always looking for the gaps between recorded events, the spaces in between’. In this novel, I think she has definitely succeeded in filling those ‘gaps’ and ‘spaces’ with a really involving, compelling story. The Watch House is beautifully written with an atmospheric setting, characters I cared about, and an underlying sense of mystery. For me, it’s the epitome of a good read.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Tinder Press, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Atmospheric, emotional, dramatic

Try something similar…The Good People by Hannah Kent (to read my review, click here)

BernieMcGillAbout the Author

Bernie McGill was born in Lavey in County Derry in Northern Ireland. She studied English and Italian at Queen’s University, Belfast and graduated with a Masters degree in Irish Writing. She has written for the theatre (The Weather Watchers, The Haunting of Helena Blunden), a novel, The Butterfly Cabinet and a short story collection, Sleepwalkers. Her new novel The Watch House will be published by Tinder Press in 2017. Her short fiction has been nominated for numerous awards and in 2008 she won the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Award in the US. She is a recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s inaugural ACES (Artists’ Career Enhancement Scheme) Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast. She lives in Portstewart in Northern Ireland with her family and works as a Creative Writing facilitator.

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