The journalist and television presenter Kirsty Wark has set her debut novel on the island of Arran, which nestles in the Firth of Clyde off the Ayrshire coast. It is a place that she knows well and this shines through, as Arran is as important to her tale as her two protagonists, the eponymous Elizabeth and Martha, the woman she draws back to the island.
It is 2006 and the aged Elizabeth Pringle dies, leaving her house and contents to a young woman whom she used to watch wheeling a pram past her home. The woman, Anna Morrison, put a note through Elizabeth’s door saying that, if she ever wanted to sell, Anna would love to buy the house. More than 30 years later, Anna has succumbed to dementia and it is left to her daughter Martha, who was the child being pushed in the pram, to deal with her mother’s surprising legacy.
The narrative switches between Elizabeth and Martha. Elizabeth is frantically writing the story of her life while Martha discovers much about herself as she tries to get to know the woman who has been so generous to her mother. The structure works well, demonstrating the similarities and differences between the two women. Both are well-rounded characters and their stories are engaging if not wildly original.
At times Wark lets her prose run away with her and it becomes so stuffed full of description that the reader’s imagination is left no room to breathe. There are also passages in which her love of the history of Arran leads to real people and events being awkwardly inserted into the fiction. However, Martha’s relationship with Anna is beautifully and touchingly written, a daughter helplessly watching her beloved, vibrant mother fade away.
For a woman born before the First World War, and who remained a spinster all her life, Elizabeth can nonetheless look back on two great loves. The first, Robert, an island neighbour, emigrated to Australia; the second was an American officer stationed in Ayrshire during the Second World War. Martha also finds romance on the island but the sex scenes, both for Elizabeth and Martha, seem to come from the raunchier end of the Mills and Boon catalogue. It is a bold attempt to show a very private facet of both women that doesn’t quite come off.
This is an appealing debut that sustains interest to the very last page. Elizabeth Pringle is a quietly heroic character and, like Arran, she never fails to charm.