The Blackhouse, by Peter May

April 11, 2013 at 9:11 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

BlackhouseCover  The Blackhouse is a big, ambitious novel. Its chief protagonist is Finlay MacLeod is a police officer in Edinburgh. As the novel begins, Fin is investigating a homicide that took place in that city when DCI Black, his boss, suddenly informs him that he’s being sent to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It seems that a murder there closely resembles MacLeod’s Edinburgh case as regards the killer’s MO. One other important point: Fin MacLeod was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis.

Fin has not been back to Lewis for a long time. There are reasons for his lengthy absence. He has no living family members still on the island. But he does have friends, a former lover, and other associations still there. The woman he had loved, and known from childhood, was called Marjorie – Marsaili in Gaelic, pronounced Marshally in that language. Fin’s best friend had been Artair Macinnes. Artair and Marsaili were now married; they had a son named Fionnlagh, which is Fin’s own Gaelic name. If this sounds like a complex and potentially fraught situation – it is.

Nevertheless, Fin must follow orders and return to Lewis, to look into the murder of Angus Macritchie. In times past, Macritchie had been the archetypal schoolyard bully, disliked by Fin and pretty much everyone else on the island. Now he was dead, and it’s up to Fin to find out who killed him and why.

Meanwhile, Fin’s personal life in Edinburgh has been slowly and painfully disintegrating.  He has suffered a terrible bereavement, and his marriage is on the rocks. It’s a good time to get away from Edinburgh. But Fin is apprehensive about returning to the Isle of Lewis – and it turns out, he has good reason to feel that way.

Peter May’s depiction of life on this remote outpost is meticulous and vivid. Here, Fin recalls a moment from his childhood on the island:

The northern part of Lewis was flat and unbroken by hills or mountains, and the weather swept across it from the Atlantic to the Minch, always in a hurry. And so it was always changing. Light and dark in ever-shifting patterns, one set against the other – rain, sunshine, black sky, blue sky. And rainbows. My childhood seemed filled with them. Usually doublers. We watched one that day, forming fast over the peatbog, vivid against  the blackest of blue-black skies. It took away the need for words

In a later scene, Fin and a fellow officer are driving up the west coast of the island:

He watched the villages drift by, like moving images in an old family album, every building, every fencepost and blade of grass picked out in painfully sharp relief by the sun behind them. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere….The tiny village primary schools, too, were empty, still shut for the summer holidays. Fin wondered  where all the children were. To their right, the peatbog drifted into a hazy infinity, punctuated only by stoic sheep standing firm against the Atlantic gales. To their left, the ocean itself swept in timeless cycles on to beaches and into rocky inlets, , creamy white foam crashing over darkly obdurate gneiss, the oldest rock on earth. The outline of a tanker, like a distant mirage, was just discernible on the horizon.

Peter May’s writing is powerful and persuasive, at times ascending to the poetic. This gift serves him well when he comes to describe an event of supreme importance to the people of Lewis: the guga harvest. Every year, a limited number of men are invited to be a part of this unique island tradition. It begins with a boat trip across treacherous waters to a rocky island called An Sgeir, where thousands of birds arrive during the summer months to nest and procreate. The guga, or gannets, are considered delicacies by the people of Lewis. The job of the guga hunters is to capture some two thousand birds within a two week period. The young chicks are plucked from their nests while the frantic parents flap their wings and screech in protest. The necks of the chicks are quickly broken; then they are plucked clean, slit open to receive sea salt as a preservative, and otherwise made ready for the return trip. Ultimately they will be presented to the islanders of Lewis, perfectly preserved and ready to eat.

It is considered an honor to be selected as a participant in the yearly guga harvest. Fin received just such an honor during his last summer before leaving the island to attend university in Glasgow. It is a distinction he could have well done without. He has no desire to go, but once chosen, it is virtually impossible to decline. And so, with  a heavy, heart, he joins the team of hunters. After the inevitable rough crossing Fin catches sight of An Sger for the first time:

Three hundred feet of sheer black cliff streaked with white, rising straight out of the ocean in front of us….I saw what looked like snow blowing in a steady stream from the peak before I realized  that the snowflakes were birds. Fabulous white birds with blue-black wingtips and yellow heads, a wingspan of nearly two metres. Gannets. Thousands of them, filling the sky, turning in the light, riding turbulent currents of air.

(The white streaks are actually bird guano. Fin had smelled An Sgeir before he’d seen it.)

An Sgeir was barely half a mile long, its vertebral column little more than a hundred yards across. There was no soil here, no grassy banks or level land, no beaches. Just shit-covered rock rising straight out of the sea.

Fin adds that he couldn’t imagine a more inhospitable place. But this is just the beginning. While engaged in the arduous labor of unloading two weeks’ worth of supplies, Fin discovers how hard it is to maintain your footing on the island. The rock is made slick not just by the guano but by the slimy green vomit produced by petrel chicks terrified by this sudden human invasion. Add to that the unceasing racket generated by the avian multitudes, and you have a sort of Hell on Earth. And there they will stay for two full weeks, carrying out the multifaceted operation of catching, killing, and preparing the birds.

There is only one place to shelter on An Sgeir. It is a blackhouse.

Although Fin can’t help but admire the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and just plain toughness of the guga hunters, he finds the two weeks on An Sgeir an awful experience, an endurance test that can’t end soon enough. And at the end of two weeks it does end. But not without two momentous occurrences, the full import of which Fin does not grasp until many years after the event.

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Peter May’s evocation of life on the Isle of Lewis is deeply resonant. The geography of the place, the social order, the dominance of the church, the entire way of life – all are presented here in minute detail. There were times when I thought it might be too minute. The anthropology threatens to overwhelm the mystery. The actual crime was, for this reader, the least memorable aspect of the book. The cast of characters is fairly large; moreover, the complex narrative alternates between the  present and the past. This brings up a certain  aspect of the narrative style employed by May in this novel: the events of the present time are set forth in the third person, while the sections dealing with Fin’s boyhood on the island are recounted by him in the first person. It took me a while to get comfortable with this method of advancing the story.

the-lewis-chessmen.-print-poster-or-canvas.-ffpd000800--10785-p  Until I read The Blackhouse, the only knowledge I had of the Isle of Lewis had to do with the famous Chessmen, almost certainly carved by Norsemen in the early Middle Ages and discovered on the island in 1831. (In  the novel, Fin recalls a bit of island legend to the effect that the crofter who found the tiny carvings, mistaking them for the “…elves and gnomes, the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore,” fled the scene in fear for his life.)

Peter May’s description of the guga harvest is riveting and bizarre to the point of almost seeming hallucinatory. Off hand,  as regards its affect on the reader – this reader, anyway – the only recent fiction I can readily compare it to is Karen Russell’s astonishing story “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.” So –  is there actually such a thing as the guga harvest? Indeed there is, as you will see if you click here.

There are actual blackhouses remaining in the Outer Hebrides, although few if any still serve as dwelling places. Here is Fin’s description:

The Blackhouses had dry-stone walls with thatched roofs and gave shelter to both man and beast. A peat fire burend day and night in the centre of the stone floor of the main room. It was  called the fire room. There were no chimneys, and smoke was supposed to escape through a hole in the roof. Of course, it wasn’t very efficient, and the houses were always full of the stuff.

He adds: “It was little wonder that life expectancy was  short.” (Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the blackhouses.)

Restored blackhouse in a museum on Trotternish, Skye

Restored blackhouse in a museum on Trotternish, Skye

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The Blackhouse presents some structural challenges for the reader, and there were times when the plot seemed somewhat labored, if not downright irrelevant, given the fascination of the setting.. But Peter May writes beautifully, and he’s created an enormously likable protagonist in Fin MacLeod. This is the first novel in the Lewis Trilogy, and I look forward to the next one.

Peter May

Peter May

1 Comment

  1. Carol said,

    I enjoyed this book and found Peter May an interesting speaker at the Bloody Scotland crime book convention. I also liked the second in the series, though I didn’t feel it equaled THE BLACKHOUSE, and am looking forward to the third.

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