Margaret Elphinstone: journeys by water

About a decade ago, I came across a book by an author I’d never heard of: The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone. It started with an old woman telling her story to a young monk; that old woman turned out to be the daughter-in-law of Lief Ericcson, and the first European woman in North America.

My story begins far from Rome, far from this white sun that rises above the rooftops in the middle of the day. It begins in a place that is all water and shadow, where colours melt and change, a place of space and cleanliness, a long way north of here and lost forever in the past.

From The Sea Road

The story started slowly but drew me in, until I was gulping the salt air on a leather boat bound for Newfoundland. And I knew that I wanted to read more by this author.

Elphinstone is a Scottish writer, and if I had to sum up her novels, it would be “stories about water”.  In Voyageurs, a young Quaker travels across the ocean from England to North America, and then upriver into the wilds of Canada. He is searching for his missing sister, but faces challenges to his own idealism in an unfamiliar land.

Islands feature in her other works. Light is a mastery of miniature world-building about a small 19th-century family who run a lighthouse.  Hy Brasil is a modern tale with a contemporary heroine, but it is set on an imaginary land somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, a place of volcanoes and smugglers and forbidden love.

Her latest book, The Gathering Night is a prehistoric story told around a campfire. She takes a known geological event (a mega-tsunami from about 6000 BC) and recreates a world of hunting and gathering, of brutal rituals and tender jokes, making these people seem very different from us and yet not so different after all.

“Kemen! The sea! Look!”

I saw it then, far off under the Sunless Sky. A grey cliff, white-tipped. A cliff made of water. A noise like a mountain falling. My heart turned cold.
From The Gathering Night

Elphinstone’s books are painstakingly researched (for The Gathering Night, she built and sailed her own coracle), but the research is lightly stitched into her narrative and her characters seem like real people of their time and place. It’s a shame she’s not better known.

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