*I received a free ARC of this novella, with thanks to the author, John Murray Press and NetGalley. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: A spellbinding novel combining Scottish folklore with hidden history, by the Sunday Times bestselling author Sally Magnusson.
Loch Katrine waterworks, 1856. A Highland wilderness fast becoming an industrial wasteland. No place for a lady.
Isabel Aird is aghast when her husband is appointed doctor to an extraordinary waterworks being built miles from the city. But Isabel, denied the motherhood role that is expected of her by a succession of miscarriages, finds unexpected consolations in a place where she can feel the presence of her unborn children and begin to work out what her life in Victorian society is for.
The hills echo with the gunpowder blasts of hundreds of navvies tunnelling day and night to bring clean water to diseased Glasgow thirty miles away – digging so deep that there are those who worry they are disturbing the land of faery itself. Here, just inside the Highland line, the membrane between the modern world and the ancient unseen places is very thin.
With new life quickening within her again, Isabel can only wait. But a darker presence has also emerged from the gunpowder smoke. And he is waiting too.
Inspired by the mysterious death of the seventeenth-century minister Robert Kirke and set in a pivotal era two centuries later when engineering innovation flourished but women did not, The Ninth Child blends folklore with historical realism in a spellbinding narrative.
The Ninth Child is a novel about the places where worlds meet: folklore and spreading industrialisation; royalty and poverty; water and land; faery, church and science.
Most of the novel takes place in Glasgow, where Isabel has accompanied her husband, Dr. Alexander Aird. While he throws himself into the project to help bring clean water to the masses, as camp doctor at the building of the new waterworks, Isabel wanders forlornly across fields and round lakes, chasing the ghosts of her miscarried babies and struggling to reconcile her role as a woman who is not supposed to work or even think overmuch, but yet is continually thwarted at motherhood.
Darker forces lurk, however, than Isabel’s pale misery. She is being watched by a mysterious figure – in ministerial clothes, but apparently homeless and living wild in the woods – who introduces himself as Robert Kirke. The same Robert Kirke who wrote a book about faery and died in the seventeenth century.
The author cleverly leaves the ultimate conclusions about what is going on up to the reader, via the characters, to decide. We see alternating viewpoints from Isabel Aird, Robert Kirke, Kirsty McEchern (Isabel’s house help) and even from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as the story unfolds. This allows us the freedom of interpretation of the events, with Robert Kirke believing wholeheartedly in his own faery story for example, while Isabel doubts it and pities his wretchedness. I did find that the changing narrators was confusing in places, as it wasn’t clearly delineated when switches occurred, and the voices were not always immediately distinct. However I usually picked up who we were with after just a few lines, so this wasn’t a big problem.
The historical details here are fascinating, and the story is a moving study into isolation: geographical, experiential, emotional. I found the characters a little hard to engage with for that very reason: in isolating themselves and each other, it felt like they pushed the reader to arm’s length too, and it often felt that we learnt more about them from the outside perspective of other characters than from the insight into their own thoughts.
In some ways I felt that, in staying between worlds, striving for neutrality of viewpoint, what the author has achieved here is a book which is too fanciful for historical fiction, but shies away from wholly committing to magical realism or fairytale. So, neither one thing or the other, but somewhere betwixt and between.
As the only lady for miles and certainly the only woman braving the wilds today in a hooped lilac gown and a bonnet nodding with silken fruit, Isabel had been attracting so much attention that she barely noticed the other figure staring at her from a clump of bright trees. She might not have registered him at all – black coat, something white at the neck, no hat of any kind – if she had not been so struck by the man’s eyes, which burned through the faint gunpowder haze with a peculiar energy.
‘Hungry’ is how she would describe the look afterwards.
– Sally Magnusson, The Ninth Child
Find more from Sally Magnusson at her website here, or follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.
The Ninth Child is available on Amazon right now!