I loved this dark thriller from acclaimed author of Mirrorland Carol Johnstone, with its bleak setting, mysterious deaths and Norse folklore. Maggie Mackay is a successful investigative journalist, but has always been held back by a negative inner voice and terrible nightmares. She’s been haunted by the idea that there’s something wrong with her and she can see or sense darkness. She thinks this feeling is linked to her childhood and a small village in the Outer Hebrides called Blairmore. Maggie stayed there with her mother when she was very young and caused a furore when, out of nowhere, she claimed that someone in the village had murdered a man. She left the community in uproar, saying she was really a man called Andrew MacNeil who had lived in the village on the island of Kilmery. Her mother believed and encouraged her claims, but when they returned to the mainland this strange interlude wasn’t referred to again. Now 25, Maggie returns to the island, in search of answers. Mainly, she wants to find out if her claims could possibly have been true, but with her history on the island, Maggie may struggle to get people to talk to her. However, this is an island with few inhabitants, but a wealth of secrets and if Maggie gets too close to the truth she may be in serious danger.
Kilmery is sat across a causeway from Lewis and Harris, and the author makes this incredible place a real character of it’s own. It’s isolated position reinforces the feeling of loneliness that surrounds Maggie. She roams around the island, often alone and there were times she felt like an easy target, especially to someone who knows the terrain better than she does. Shipwrecks litter the coast and the author’s description of a ship coming to harm one stormy night enhances that feeling of danger.
‘It wasn’t the screams he remembered the most, although they crashed to shore inside the howling, furious wind and ricocheted around the high cliffs above the beach for hours. It wasn’t the storm or the roaring, foaming waves that carved great snaking wounds through the wet sand and stole its shape from under his feet.’
For Maggie, the island is changeable and I felt the way it was viewed echoed the journey she’s on through this dark, dangerous investigation to the hint of a possible brighter future. The wind, fog, and storms lashing against the rocks are unnerving, but there are places that Maggie finds peace. At the Oir na Tir standing stones, even with the wind and rain driving against them, Maggie senses their permanence. This is something that won’t be moved and stands like a sentinel, weathering every storm that’s passed over them. This is the kind of permanence Maggie wants in her own mind, a sense of peace that stays despite what life throws at her. Then there’s the meadow, shown to her by Will, one of the locals she befriends.
‘At the bottom of the hill is a vast green meadow stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s gorgeous, dotted with silver-still lochans, gold winter heather, and boulders covered in moss and orange lichen. It opens something inside my chest, precarious and fragile; a sense of longing that I suppose is awe or wonder. At this uncannily beautiful place full of a light and colour so at odds with the bronze desolation of those inland bens and glens […] I can feel the sting of ludicrous tears, and blink them away.’
This is machair, a type of dune grassland formed by sand and broken shells blown over from the beach. In opens up a sense of wonder in Maggie, like the childhood awe we have for Christmas and it’s magic. It’s almost as if this piece of the landscape connects her to the child she was before all of this happened. Can she trust it though?
I loved the link to the supernatural and Norse folklore, particularly the idea of ‘thin places’, something I’ve had a feeling about before. As an avid reader of the Outlander series, this ability to move into a different time or experience a haunting feels synonymous with Scotland. Old fisherman Charlie, who decides to talk to Maggie about the past, describes a thin place as where the space between this and other worlds is the shortest. The chance of seeing, knowing or feeling something from another world is high. There’s superstition within the fishermen, who never say a prayer aboard a boat, but douse it in whiskey and salt or even use burning rags to cleanse every corner of the boat, rather like smudging using sage twigs. It’s the ‘Vándr-varði’ that feel really disturbing, left anonymously outside The Blackhouse, where Maggie is staying. They’re mummified crows, old Norse talismans to guard against evil, but Maggie doesn’t know whether they’ve been left to protect her or whether she’s the evil that needs to be kept at bay. All of this superstition adds to the mystery Maggie is trying to solve, but she wonders whether it’s meant to spook her and warn her off the truth. The tension keeps building and by the time Maggie has a midnight visitor, my heart was racing.
The central mystery is fascinating and makes the book very difficult to put down. Charlie feels like the designated spokesperson for the islanders, he approaches Maggie with an apology for the way they treated her when she was a child and there’s a fatherly feel to the way he talks to her. On one hand I felt he was on Maggie’s side, but I also wondered whether he was a decoy – someone sent to give her just enough information, perhaps to deflect her from the reaching the truth. Other people greet her with outright hostility and I had a lot of admiration for Maggie’s tenacity considering how vulnerable she must feel, staying on the island as a lone woman. Maggie also has a bipolar diagnosis and I thought this was well portrayed by the author, even though it adds another layer of uncertainty – can we trust what Maggie is experiencing? I found Maggie’s narration more compelling than the male narrator, but overall loved the pace and the different perspectives that give us an insight into events back in the 1970’s. There were twists I didn’t expect and the final revelations about the mystery felt satisfying. I love how this author likes to wrong-foot her reader and although this was more gothic than horror, there were parts that were very unsettling and left me listening out for creaks in the dead of night. I came away from it with an uneasy feeling, not about the supernatural aspects, but more about what humans are capable of doing and how isolated communities like this one have the perfect environment in which to plot and keep secrets, in some cases for decades. This cements Carol Johnstone in my mind as an author to look out for and I will be buying a finished copy of this book for my collection.
Published 4th August by Harper Collins UK
Meet the Author
Scottish writer Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, Mirrorland, will be published in spring 2021 by Borough Press/HarperCollins in the UK and Commonwealth and by Scribner/Simon & Schuster in North America.
Her award-winning short fiction has been reprinted in many annual ‘Best Of’ anthologies in the UK and the US. She has been published by Titan Books, Tor Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and PS Publishing, and has written Sherlock Holmes stories for Constable & Robinson and Running Press.