I’m wary of books written by people in the public eye. There are those who have clearly used a ghost writer. Others have no writing skill, just a big enough name to sell the book anyway. I worry for myself and all those other aspiring writers who won’t be able to get a book deal because the lists are full with celebrity memoirs and books set in Cornwall! However, there are some celebrity authors who get it right, often those who started out as reporters before becoming famous. Jeremy Vine’s debut novel was a pleasant surprise, and my stepdaughters loved David Walliams stories. I knew Dawn French could write well only a few pages into her memoir. I can now add Kirsty Wark to this list, since stumbling on her book second hand in Barter Books, Alnwick. I started to read it while still on holiday and loved it.
The author lets her characters tell the story. Firstly we are told Elizabeth’s story from her journal and we meet her at the beginning of the First World War, a time of big changes for her family. She is moving with her mum from the isolated family farm to the small fishing village of Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. The house they will live in is Holmlea, which has a beautiful sea view out to Holy Isle and the monastery. We are then immersed in Elizabeth’s life: their family friendship with the Duchess of Montrose; an incredible passion for gardening; all the relationships in her life. These relationships ebb and flow, but into her old age she has two men in her life. There is Niall the rather passionate gardener who works as an architect and Saul, a Buddhist monk from Holy Isle. When working in her front garden she notices a young woman, walking past with her baby in a pram. The young woman is Anna, and she is very taken with Holmlea and asks Elizabeth to contact her if she ever decides to sell it.
Our other narrator is Martha, the daughter of Anna Morrison, who is surprised to find her mother has been offered the legacy of a house on the Isle of Arran by a woman she’s never heard of before. Anna is now struggling with dementia, so much so that Martha is now her full time carer and deals with her finances. It is Martha who organises help for her mother and takes a trip up to Arran to see the house. So it is also up to Hannah to uncover Elizabeth’s reasons for leaving the house, but also discover more about her life and secrets. There was once a fiancé in Elizabeth’s life who moved out to Australia to start a sheep farm. Elizabeth was reluctant to go, feeling she needed to be there for her mother. She passes her time walking in the hills and during the war, helped in looking for lost and crashed airmen. Eventually, it is too late to follow her fiancé and at the end, Elizabeth has lived on Arran for 90 years. More recently she’s had friendships with a young man whose sister runs the local hotel and he has worked with her to create her beautiful garden. It is her friend Saul who encourages her to write her story down. He is a struggling Buddhist monk who is staying at Holy Island and meets Elizabeth when she volunteers in the gardens.
The books major strength is in description, creating a strong sense of place. This is a bleak but beautiful place, and she situates Arran and Holy Island as sustaining to the people who live there or come for solace. These islands feel like a cornerstone or anchor for the people who are born there and almost like medicine to those lonely or desperate people who seek them out. Gardens are featured heavily as a source of sustenance for the body and the soul and I truly understand that need to be in nature and feel your senses drink it in. I thought it was a wonderfully calm and quiet novel, but quiet doesn’t mean it’s without impact. I really loved Elizabeth’s story, it shows how quiet and seemingly unassuming people can have hidden depths. We often overlook the elderly, thinking they have lived their lives. I’ve worked in nursing homes and advocacy, and it’s surprising how many elderly people are cared for by people who don’t really know them and never try to. They talk to other carers as if the person they’re helping is deaf or not really there. I created a memory project where I found old photographs of residents and wrote down stories they told me about their lives. I then put up a display outside each bedroom, so that carers could see their residents as individuals with experience and stories to share. This book reminded me of that project and what a difference it made to the resident’s everyday lives.
Meet The Author
Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who has presented a wide range of BBC programmes for more than twenty five years, from the ground-breaking LATE SHOW to the weekly arts and cultural review show THE REVIEW SHOW and the nightly current affairs show NEWSNIGHT.
Kirsty has won several major awards for her work, including BAFTA Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting, Journalist of the Year and Best Television Presenter. Her debut novel, THE LEGACY OF ELIZABETH PRINGLE, was published in March 2014 by Two Roads and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award, as well as nominated for the International DUBLIN Literary Award. Her second novel, THE HOUSE BY THE LOCH, was inspired by her childhood memories and family, particularly her father. She is currently working on her third novel, set in Glasgow.
Born in Dumfries and educated in Ayr, Scotland, Kirsty now lives in Glasgow.