Elspeth Dunn is a poet & crofter living on Skye in 1913. She receives a fan letter from a young American medical student, David Graham, & they begin a correspondence. Davey is unhappy studying medicine, which was his father’s choice. He longs to do something more creative & he pours out his thoughts & ambitions to Elspeth who he renames Sue. They learn about each other’s lives – Elspeth is married to Iain & has never left Skye, mostly because she’s afraid of the sea & boats. Her poetry is the most important thing in her life. Gradually their friendship deepens into love.
When war comes in 1914, Davey & his best friend Harry become ambulance drivers with the American Ambulance Field Service. Elspeth overcomes her fears & meets Davey in London where they become lovers. Elspeth’s husband has joined up along with her brother, Finlay. Although her marriage was based on companionship more than passionate love, Elspeth feels guilty for betraying Iain & Finlay is so furious with her that he refuses to speak to her & their relationship is irrevocably damaged, especially after Iain is posted missing in action. When Davey’s letters suddenly stop, Elspeth has no idea what has happened to him & she retreats to Skye.
In 1940, Elspeth is living in Edinburgh with her daughter, Margaret. Margaret is working as an evacuation officer, taking children to live in the country out of the danger of bombing raids. She is engaged to a pilot, Paul, who’s stationed in southern England. After a raid one night, Margaret discovers a suitcase full of letters from Davey addressed to someone called Sue. Her mother is so upset by the discovery that she disappears, leaving Margaret desperate to find the key to the mystery of her mother’s life. Margaret has no memories of Skye or her mother’s Skye family & Elspeth has always refused to speak of the past. Margaret makes contact with her uncle Finlay, now living in Glasgow, &, after a frosty beginning, he begins to tell Margaret of Elspeth’s early life. Margaret travels to Skye & finds her grandmother who explains a little more. Margaret’s search for the story of her mother & Davey will finally explain the mysteries & silences of her mother’s life.
Letters from Skye is written entirely in letters. Letters between Davey & Elspeth, Margaret & Paul, Margaret & Finlay. This can be a very successful way to tell a story – it’s impossible not to be reminded of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. The downside of the epistolary method is a kind of awkwardness that this book doesn’t altogether avoid. The correspondents have to retell events at which they were present so that the reader gets the information, which can be clumsy. It can also be difficult to recreate a sense of place without the descriptive passages of a more conventional narrative. I also thought that a couple of the plot twists near the end of the story were a little far-fetched so I finished the book feeling slightly let down. I wanted to love this book & it didn’t live up to my high expectations. Maybe I was comparing it to another book about Skye & WWI that I absolutely loved, Linda Gillard’s The Glass Guardian.
On the whole, though, Jessica Brockmole has written a tender, romantic story with some exceptional characters. I especially loved Elspeth’s mother, who comes alive in the letters Margaret writes to Paul when she travels to Skye. Davey’s experiences with the Ambulance brigade in France were also beautifully done. I’ll be interested to see what she writes next.
I read Letters from Skye courtesy of NetGalley.