The Winter Isles | Antonia Senior | 2015, Pb 2016 | Corvus | 348p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is early in the 12th century and Somerled, son of Gillebrigte, lord of a small stretch of Western coast, is about to undergo a baptism of fire. Hanging on to land, let alone power, is no easy task in this time of rival lords and petty kings, pirates, Norse and Gaelic warriors. Oaths sworn are not guaranteed, the fealty of men depends on the supply of booty, women, boats and blood. Gillebrigte is barely holding on to what is hardly his and when another lord burns his longhouse, scorches half of his body and face, and slaughters most of his followers, most abandon him to the caves on the edge of the shore, where he and his family must hide. The young Somerled, though, is not beaten. Although not yet a grown man, he discovers he has the gift of leading and inspiring men. Taking small steps at first, it’s not too long before Somerled steals his first longhouse and boats. Not much time after that his fame spreads and others in search of a place seek him out to win glory and riches. But the more powerful Somerled becomes, the easier it is for Scotland’s rival kings to notice him, watch him, and then do more than that.
The Winter Isles tells the story of Somerled, a true life enigmatic figure in the medieval history of western Scotland. The novel, though, is so much more than the tale of this iron man’s drive to become king of the isles. His military prowess, demonstrated in battles at sea and at land, is matched by his ruthless eye for political strategy, but here we see another side to him – the one who as a boy fell in love with a young girl called Eimhear that he came to know as his Otter. She taught him to swim, enchanting him within this beautiful yet dangerous landscape of sea, lochs and cliffs. There’s a sense that if Somerled loves this land he fights for, it’s because it represents Eimhear. Their love story forms a dominant part of the novel but it is never smooth sailing for Somerled and Eimhear. It’s a powerful and deeply emotional relationship, with each at their best when with the other. But Somerled never forgets his purpose in life and not even his Otter can stand in the way of destiny.
Antonia Senior writes beautifully, as I’d discovered in her earlier and very different novel, Treason’s Daughter. She is clearly inspired to poetry by the landscapes she describes here, as well as the lives of the people who are such an integral part of the place. The prose is lyrical at times, full of the language of love, while in other places it is martial and fiery and cruel.
The narrative is divided, mostly between Somerled and Eimhear, with Somerled’s tale told in the third person while Eimhear speaks to us herself. This means there is a mix of past and present tenses, with present tense becoming increasingly dominant as the years pass within the novel. This isn’t a favourite technique of mine, I prefer consistency, but it doesn’t seem out of place in a novel that is so passionate.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the novel in particular. The opening chapter featuring a marooned child Somerled is so well done and sets the standard for much of what follows. The scenes in the longhouse are richly evocative of a lost time. I was surprised to find that one of my favourite characters is the priest Father Padeen and I did miss him later in the book, once Somerled has grown older and further away from his influence.
Men might have hard lives, and short, but the lot for women is especially cruel and this is thoroughly and painfully explored here. It’s perhaps inevitable considering that she is forced into a passive role for much of the novel, that Eimhear’s voice is less easy to recall than Somerled’s story. I did find the second half of the novel harder to read but this is largely I think a sign of the times that are depicted here. It is so brutal and tough and, for the women, increasingly awful to behold.
Antonia Senior is to be congratulated for the passion and emotion she has invested in The Winter Isles. One reason why the book is at times painful to read is because it feels so real and, for all the romance, poetry, the sea and the beauty, these were terrible times. All of this, you’ll find and experience in The Winter Isles.