The Winter Sea/Sophia’s Secret, by Susanna Kearsley

I never like it when books are published under different titles in different Anglophone countries. For a start, it makes it harder to title the reviews 😉 This book, by Canadian author Susanna Kearsley, was released in North America as The Winter Sea and in the UK as Sophia’s Secret.

Sophia's SecretThe book interweaves the story of Carrie McClelland, a historical novelist writing about the 1708 Jacobite Rebellion, and her ancestor Sophia, the central character of her novel. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that she is not so much writing a novel as a memoir; Carrie, it seems possesses Sophia’s actual memories.

I loved the juxtaposition of the two women’s stories, separated by 300 years but tied by common threads. It recalls the framing devices popular in 19th-century British literature and, true to its nature as a novel within a novel, features two distinct narrative styles. Carrie’s tale is told in first person with contemporary prose, while Sophia’s is in third-person limited with a more archaic (but still entirely readable) prose style.

The novel plays with past and present, fact and fiction, personal and political. Carrie, in the present, thinks she is writing a fictional narrative in which she strives for historical accuracy, but later finds she is recording facts that took place 300 years ago. She had initially been struggling to write a story about the men involved in the politics of James VIII and III’s French court, but while she was passionate about the subject matter her story failed to come to life until she chose Sophia, a young woman at a remote castle in rural Aberdeenshire, as her protagonist. Sophia is on the periphery of the conflict, and we see the ’08 through her eyes and in the context of her more personal concerns.

The Winter Sea 2Although the politics are in the background of the novel, however, Kearsley’s detailed research is clear on every page, from the fact that she chose the lesser-known ’08 over the more famous ’15 and ’45 risings to her acknowlegement that the most common religious denomination amongst Jacobites was Episcopalianism, not Catholicism. While I am not familiar enough with Aberdeenshire to comment on its portrayal, Kearsley’s knowledge of Kirkcubright geography is impeccable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for her science. The explanation for Carrie having her ancestor’s memories seems to be that it is in her DNA, which makes even less sense when you consider how clear these 300-year-old memories are, and that they only seem to truly come out when she writes, not at will. Perhaps this is my own personal bias speaking, but I would have preferred a more supernatural explanation than a pseudoscientific one. A supernatural explanation would have permitted internal consistency within a world clearly recognised as being our world with a twist, whereas the attempt at a scientific justification is jarring in its inaccuracy.

Fortunately, the explanation for why Carrie has Sophia’s memories is not terribly significant; it is enough that she has them, and it does not hinder my enjoyment of the story. The description alone is exquisite, balancing salient details to give the reader an appreciation for the essence of what the imagery tries to capture. A good example is on page 486:

[We’d] walked round the outside [of the castle] on tidy gravel pathways edged by neatly clipped sections of lawn and new-flowering borders

There’s nothing in there about the types of flowers or the configuration of the pathways, but words like “tidy” and “neatly clipped” tell the reader that these paths are cared for, and allow the reader to fill in the blanks with an idea of the type of place Carrie is walking around.

I give this book 4 stars. It’s an engaging, compelling read.


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