Wednesday 6 September 2023

My review of The Dowagers Dream by Miriam Hastings

This excellent and compelling novel about the Highland Clearances is narrated through the viewpoints of both Mary and Kirsty. Kirsty is housekeeper at the 'manse' and servant to Mary's father, the brusque minister.

The novel opens with the sighting of a mermaid in the remote community near Thurso in the Highlands of Scotland. Mary sees it too and the Highlanders view the vision of a mermaid as portentous.

The largely absent Laird at the Bighouse— also in a longstanding feud with his mother, the Dowager—has arranged for new plans for the estate and no longer wants the crofters to grow crops as they have for generations but instead wants to turn the land over to sheep farming with 'cheviots' and English shepherds to oversee it. He 'wants to bring a more modern and profitable way of life up encourage a more educated and civilised culture among the residents.’. The villagers are worried about their homes and livelihoods.The prophecy of the Great White Sheep soon becomes a reality and the mermaid sighting haunts the Dowager at the Bighouse.

The Dowager, the Minister and the threatened Highlanders pull together and we see a surprise feistiness of the Dowager when her folk are threatened with eviction, in spite of their different lot in life. She aligns with them more than the outsiders who want to take over. What follows is a growing threat of violence between the English 'southerners' and the Highlanders, building to a harrowing climax.

The story is threaded through with ancient mythology of the Mermaid and the faery folk as they interact with the vivid and complex characters that sparkle off the page in what is probably Hastings' finest novel (and she's already set a high bar with the others).

You can't help but root for Kirsty's feistiness, torn as she between the loyalty to her extended family and the people she serves: Mary and her father, and the Dowager. The Dowager herself is a strident and complex character, in spite of her lineage. The shabbiness of the Bighouse brings to mind the common adage about the aristocracy having more in common with the workers than the middle classes. The Minister too is an intriguing character and best placed to be respected by all: he has a powerful position in the community but still bound by the Laird and doing what he believes to be right. He is also interested in the new scientific findings of the time which sit comfortably with his religious beliefs. He often comes across as gruff and harsh but underneath we get glimpses of a gentler side and a tolerance for the understandably mutinous Kirsty, and the manse cats. Even William Patterson, the English land agent employed by the Laird, has one or two saving graces. Other major and minor players who make a lasting impression are Kirsty's cousin Ruth Gunn as well as the more unworldly ones like Meena and, of course, the Mermaid. A special mention too has to go the manse cats, especially Patience Griselda or Patty-cat who puts a paw over the minister's mouth or pats an arm with her paw when she's disturbed by shouting or raised voices!

As well as evocative descriptions of the setting, the narration has enough phrases and colloquialisms to remind us where we are. Phrases like 'starnels' for starlings and 'glaikit limmer' for 'a foolish loose woman or scoundrel' (I had to look these words up) demonstrate Hastings has researched this thoroughly or has family knowledge. (I noticed the dedications at the beginning of book includes the surnames of both main characters ).

Like Hilary Mantel and other acclaimed writers, Hastings brings her historical characters and environment vividly to the present as if they're right there in the room with you. This is done seemlessly and artfully and is a unique skill that few people can pull off. No rose-tinted glasses here. Just real people with timeless wishes, hopes, fears, dreams and passions. Just enough dialect to 'hear' their voices. I learned so much about this overlooked and important period of history. The story and the characters will stay with me.

I can't recommend this book enough and hope to be interviewing the author more about The Dowagers Dream soon.

You can buy a paperback copy here: Feed A Reed

Or an eCopy here:

More about the author and her work can be found here: Miriam Hastings website