The structure of parallel storylines between a modern scholar/ writer and the historical subject he or she is researching/ writing about is by no means a new fictional technique. It’s been done in countless books to varying degrees of success, with the high water mark being A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea isn’t quite on that level, although it is quite good. After reading a couple of glowing reviews, it was a a blurby comparison to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca that ultimately sealed the deal and secured this book a spot on my reading list.
The modern half of the story follows Carrie McClelland, an author of historical fiction novels who is staying in Scotland to research and write her latest work, a tale of an attempted eighteenth century Jacobite invasion of Scotland to restore the exiled King James to the throne. In an attempt to overcome a case of writer's block, Carrie decides to center her story around Sophia Paterson, a fictional heroine named after one of Carrie's own ancestors. It's Sophia's story, in the form of scenes from Carrie's novel, that makes up the historical half of the storyline. The more Carrie writes about Sophia, the more she finds that her writing is flowing with an ease she’s never before experienced. She feels as if she is remembering the story, rather than creating it. When details she writes one night end up being corroborated with research unknown to her until the next day, she begins to wonder if she’s channeling an ancestral memory, passed down inherently through generations. That part of the plot could easily veer into cheesy territory, but Kearsley manages to strike just the right tone to pull it off without letting it overpower the book or detract from the rich historical details.
The overall reading experience lived up to the hype I had heard about this book, although I thought it fell a bit short of the Rebecca comparison. There just wasn’t enough sense of foreboding in the modern half of the story to warrant that, although the blustery North Scotland setting provides more than enough moody atmosphere. I wouldn't say this is a beach read, but it's definitely an entertaining, escapist read, perfect for a chilly grey day when you're holed up inside with a cup of tea and a cozy blanket.