The Sea House: A Novel

The Sea House: A Novel

by Elisabeth Gifford

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The Sea House: A Novel by Elisabeth Gifford

In 1860, Alexander Ferguson, a newly ordained vicar and amateur evolutionary scientist, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the remote Scottish island of Harris. He hopes to uncover the truth behind the legend of the selkies—mermaids or seal people who have been sighted off the north of Scotland for centuries. He has a more personal motive, too; family legend states that Alexander is descended from seal men. As he struggles to be the good pastor he was called to be, his maid Moira faces the terrible eviction of her family by Lord Marstone, whose family owns the island. Their time on the island will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after they are gone.
It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child's fragile legs are fused together—a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? To heal her own demons, Ruth feels she must discover the secrets of her new home—but the answers to her questions may lie in her own traumatic past. The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford is a sweeping tale of hope and redemption and a study of how we heal ourselves by discovering our histories.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466841406
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/15/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 595,589
File size: 968 KB

About the Author

ELISABETH GIFFORD has written articles for The Times and The Independent and has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. The Sea House is her debut novel. She is married with three children. They live in Kingston on Thames, a suburb of London, but spend as much time as possible in the Hebrides.

ELISABETH GIFFORD has written articles for The Times and The Independent and has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. The Sea House is her debut novel. She is married with three children. They live in Kingston on Thames, a suburb of London, but spend as much time as possible in the Hebrides.

Read an Excerpt

The Sea House

A Novel

By Elisabeth Gifford

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Elisabeth Gifford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4140-6


Ruth, 1992

I don't think I had ever felt so piled with gifts as I did that first night we slept in the Sea House, or so excited. I was ready to get up and carry on with the painting there and then. It was completely dark, no slur of city light. I pressed the little light on the alarm. Two a.m.

I curled up closer to Michael's long back. He was so solid in the darkness; his presence filled the room like a comfort. When I first met Michael, I thought he was too tall and elongated, a species I didn't recognise. Then I realised that he was just how he should be, a sapling in a wood, his pale brown hair the colour of winter leaves. And right now, he was exhausted, completely dead to the world.

It had taken months of back-breaking and filthy work to get the old place scraped down to a blank canvas, and then we'd had to start the long haul of repairs ready for us to move in. The truth was that our bedroom and the half-finished kitchen were still the only inhabitable bits, but you could see from the proportions of the Georgian rooms with their elegant windows and carved fireplaces that one day the house was going to be beautiful.

I turned over again, far too awake for two in the morning, and also incredibly thirsty, probably because of the dubious cava from the Tarbert Co-op. I didn't want to get a drink from the bedroom sink: we'd just cleared a dead bird from the tank feeding the upstairs taps.

It was icy when I slid outside the bedcovers. The fire in the bedroom grate had gone out. I went down the stairs as quietly as I could, feeling with my hands along the cold plaster where it was too dark to see.

Down in the kitchen, I filled a mug from the tap, and drank the water as I stared out at the dark shapes of the hills. A glassy moon clear in the black sky. The room was flooded with monochrome shadows, but then the kitchen looked at its best in the dark. You could almost imagine that the humped shape in the corner was a new Aga rather than a builder's old trestle covered with a cloth, a tiny Belling hotplate and washing-up bowl on top.

Next to the window, the moonlight showed the pale squares of my noticeboard with its To Do lists for every room; snippets of cloth and paint cards; pictures of ideal rooms torn from magazines; a collage of how the Sea House was going to be – one day. I loved sitting at the rickety kitchen table updating the lists, adding and crossing off, enjoying the delicious feeling of our forever home finally rising up from the rather disgusting ruin we'd bought in the dead of winter.

I'd first seen the house by torchlight, running the pale light over the boarded-up windows, the walls cracked and streaked with green damp. We had to force the back door to get in. The air was thick with vegetal rot. Piles of filthy fleeces stacked up in the wreck of a kitchen. Crumbling dirt and debris everywhere. The air had felt so cold it sucked the heat from my face and hands.

I was ready to turn round and go back to London.

'But don't look at the mess,' Michael said. 'Think of it freshly painted, curtains at the kitchen windows, a nice big pine table here.'

Now, with the outside more or less weatherproofed, the rats evicted and the holes in the roof remedied, the debris swept away, and after hours and hours of plastering and painting, we were finally in – and it was possible to imagine that one day, instead of a chilly building site, the Sea House would feel like a real home.

And always the next thought, the one that seemed impossible. When the house was completely ready, we'd come in through the front door, and I'd be holding a small, warm weight, a little sleeping face in a nest of soft shawls. Our child.

I avoided glancing down to the bottom of the noticeboard and the scruffy wad of bills still to be paid. Felt the niggle of worry stir in my stomach.

I tipped the mug up and put it on the draining board – carefully, as the sink was a bit loose from the wall, propped up with some wood offcuts. The flagstones were freezing and starting to make my feet hurt. My shoulders felt pinched by the cold.

There was hardly any moonlight as I crossed the hall to go back upstairs. The new floorboards felt unpleasantly gritty under my bare feet and a freezing draught was coming up from the missing skirting board, bringing with it a clayey odour. I shivered and made for a pool of moonlight on the lower banisters. I put my hand out to take the newel post and felt the cold of the gloss paint under my palm.

That's when I saw it: a quick blur of movement like a tiny wing caught from the corner of my eye. I saw a hand descending on the newel post just after mine.

I froze. A sudden, painful pricking of blood in my feet, the smell of clay sharp in my nostrils, every instinct primed to get out of there. She was so close, so palpably present, I thought she would appear in front of me. I couldn't breathe. My heart was gabbling so hard I thought it was going to give out.

And then she was gone. The air relaxed.

I ran up those stairs, the door to our room half ajar just as I had left it. I got back into bed with a thump and lay close to Michael. He murmured but didn't wake.

I stared into the dark. What on earth had just happened? Some delay in the messages from my eye to my brain. Some silly trick of the mind half roused from sleep had sent me into a stupid panic. Eventually my heart slowed to normal and I'd almost talked myself down, was almost drifting off when I woke up once more, very alert. I opened my eyes onto the darkness. Then why had it felt so intensely real, as if someone else was there in the hallway, standing beside me so closely that for a moment I wasn't sure who I was?

The fear was beginning to seep back in. I felt sick from fatigue, but there was nothing I could do; I stayed alert and awake, listening out to the minute sounds of a silent house, all my senses still primed.

I could hear the waves breaking along the shore like soft breaths. I got up and wrapped a blanket from the chair round my shoulders, went to the window and lifted the wax blind. The moon was completely round in the blackness. There were bright lines of its phosphorescence along the waves, continuously moving through the darkness and then disappearing.

I watched them for a while. After that I felt calmer. Eventually, I got some sleep.

* * *

When Michael came in with two mugs of coffee next morning, the sun was already strong through the blinds.

'The wood's being delivered this morning,' he said, picking out a T-shirt and giving it a sniff. He worked his arms into it. 'We might have a floor in the sea room today.'

He sat on the bed, making the mattress bounce, and pulled on his grubby jeans from the day before. I had to cradle my coffee so that it didn't spill on the new duvet. It had an oily bitter smell. I wondered if the jar of Nescafé had gone stale. I put the coffee to one side on the orange box that was covered in a new tea towel for elegance.

'Donny's coming to help pull up the rest of the old boards. Although we're going to dig a channel in the earth underneath to lay a cable first.'

'I'll come down and help,' I said.

'I thought you were going to finish your drawings.'

He leaned over and bashed my chin with a quick kiss. His long, slim arms looked different, the muscles and veins more prominent. He'd worked so hard to get us out of the caravan. He'd hated the little bed that didn't let him stretch out, but I'd got to quite like living in the shelter of the dunes, right next to the deserted beaches and the wide Atlantic rollers that towered up like molten glass in the blue winter air. I was glad that the Sea House was almost as close to the water, just the other side of the dunes, where the green machair broke into sandy waves of undulating silver marram grass. And then the beginning of the wide, flat beaches.

Michael stood up, stretched his long torso and combed his hands through his curly hair. I think the thing that made me fall in love with Michael was the way he stooped to listen to me because he was so tall, as if he really wanted to hear what I was saying; and he was so kind and willowy, his mop of wiry, fair hair like a medieval angel in a picture. He pulled on a jumper, then his grimy overalls. He smiled, slapped his legs, ready to get started.

'So, Donny'll be here in half an hour.'

'I'm getting up. It's just, I didn't sleep well.'

'Yeah, I know. I'm constantly thinking about the next thing to do, seeing us open, the first guests rolling up. And I still can't believe we live in this house, in this fantastic place.'

I could hear him whistling as he went downstairs.

I got the fire going again in the grate and had a horrible cold wash in the sink in the corner of the bedroom. I pulled on my jeans and a flannel shirt, feeling guilty that it was Michael who was doing all the back-breaking work, while I got to sit in the only good room and draw lizards. The book was on reptile neurology and I'd just started the last chapter: 'The Brain and Nervous System of Podarcis erhardii, commonly known as Erhard's Wall Lizard'. Michael had got used to sleeping in a room with the dry aquarium and its lizard family, and the faint acrid smell of waxy chrysalises that collected at the bottom of the tank.

I lifted the insulation wadding and looked through the side of the lizard tank to see how they were getting on; immediately, a flick of a tail and a scuttle; the two lizards flashed into a different position and then froze. The thing about lizards is you can never tame them. They have a very small, very ancient brain that operates on one principle: survival. They spend their whole lives on high alert, listening out for danger, scanning their surroundings with their lizard eyes, their toe pads picking up every vibration in the earth, ready to send back one message to the brain cortex: flee, flee now. They don't consider, or think; they simply reach a certain overload in feedback criteria and then run. They are sleek little bundles of vigilant self-preservation with an evolutionary strategy so effective, you can find a lizard brain tucked inside every developed species.

I pushed back the sleeve of my jumper and carefully lowered my hand into the glass tank. There was a flicker and they both scuttled to the other end in a flurry of sand and tiny sideways straggle legs. But there was nowhere else for them to go. I slowly moved my hand towards the corner; another quick scuffle, and my hand closed round one of them. I could feel the little whip of muscle working inside my palm and the scratching of its back legs.

I held the chloroform bottle against my chest with the top of my arm and unscrewed the top. Then I covered the opening with a wad of cotton wool and tipped it over with my free hand. I held the damp cotton over the struggling lizard. Waited till it stopped. I put the lid back on the bottle, and sat down at the desk. The lizard was lying across the piece of card, its arms and legs something between a minute plucked chicken and a cartoon frog in its anthropomorphic arms-up pose. I picked up the scalpel and started to slit along the belly skin, ready to map out the nerves.

I realised that the banging and splintering from downstairs had stopped. I have an amazing ability to sit through noise and not notice it once I begin to work, but the sudden silence was unsettling. Not even the sound of digging. Something's come up, I thought, and went downstairs with my arms folded. I only hoped it wasn't more problems. Michael's father had lent us enough to get the manse ready to take our first bed and breakfasters, but we needed to be open as soon as possible if we were to keep up the payments.

I made my way down through the hallway, crossing my arms across my chest against the chill. Down in the sea room, every one of the square sash windows was filled with views of the Atlantic so that the place always felt more sea than room. Michael and Donny were standing thigh deep among the floor joists, looking at something. When Michael saw me coming in he didn't look pleased.

'What is it?' I asked. 'Just tell me the worst. Is it dry rot?'

Donny looked upset and serious. Michael was white under his summer tan and the grime from ripping up the old wood. It was freezing in there. There was a fusty smell of rot and damp.

'I don't want you to look,' he said. 'You won't like it.'

'What is it? Oh God, not another rat.'

I walked round the edge of the walls where there were still some floorboards down and then lowered myself into the floor space between the joists. The floor was damp and sandy and littered with dirt and debris. Michael and Donny were standing one each side of a small dark-brown box, or rather a little metal trunk that was rusted away in places. It had evidently just been dug up from the sandy soil.

The lid was open.

I squeezed next to Michael so that he had to hold on to the joist behind him.

'Don't,' he said.

I squatted down and looked inside. The earth smelled very sour and close there. I could see a jumble of tiny bones mixed in with a nest of disintegrating woollen material. There was some kind of symmetry to them; a tiny round skull, like a rabbit or a cat. The bones had a yellowish tinge, scoured clean by beetles and other organisms that had got into the trunk as it rusted, probably over many years. I wondered why someone had buried a cat under the house. Then I tipped my head sideways, frowned.

This was no family pet or small animal. No, this was the skull of a human baby, but everything so tiny that it must have been born either very underweight, or premature. My eyes traced along the arm bone and then down the bones of one of the legs.

Something was wrong. Where was the other leg? I shuffled closer, and noted the strange thickness of the single leg bone, the long central indentation along its length, and then I realised that it wasn't so much that any of the bones were missing but that both legs had been fused into one solid mass, the feet barely there and oddly splayed out like tiny appendages.

My heart missed a beat. I couldn't believe what I was looking at.



The same day we found the remains under our house, the police arrived from Tarbert. They parked several cars on the grass in front, churning the green turf with muddy tyre tracks.

As I watched them through the kitchen window, for a moment I was there again, a child standing alone beside the canal, watching from my hiding place behind the police van while they worked to bring something up from under the water. I felt dizzy, my breath short as I saw the muddied body rising up from the water again.

A wave of nausea made me grip the back of the kitchen chair. I dipped my head and concentrated on breathing. After a while, I straightened and looked around the kitchen.

Michael went out to see them and I left him to it. I focussed on sorting out the mess in hand, clearing away the breakfast things, but I couldn't stop shivering.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped.

'You going to be okay?' Michael said.

'It's just cold in here with them going in and out of the front door all the time.'

'I'll ask them not to leave it open.'

For the rest of the morning, Michael kept shooting worried, sideways glances in my direction each time he came in.

Michael knows about my past of course. It was always out in the open. On the first day we met, I told him: I was brought up in a children's home. After Mum died. After she drowned herself.

He knows, and he doesn't know. So many things I'll never tell him about those years. Things I don't even tell myself any more.

I pulled on an old jumper that Michael had left hanging behind the kitchen door and clutched a mug of tea in my frozen hands. I could hear them tramping in and out, their voices calling, doors slamming.

I went out into the hallway and saw the tracks of brown mud being brought in by the police, staining the new hall floorboards before we'd had a chance to seal them clean with layers of varnish. Sounds of them digging deeper under the floor coming from the sea room. Trembling with anger, I went back into the kitchen and closed the door.

'I'm afraid it will be at least two more days before Forensics arrive from Inverness,' said Sergeant MacAllister, coming into the kitchen where Michael and I were holed up together eating lunch, pretending to live a normal life. 'Perhaps it would be better if you moved out for a few days, until we can take the remains away.'


Excerpted from The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford. Copyright © 2013 Elisabeth Gifford. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Sea House: A Novel 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Book_and_recipe_Examiner More than 1 year ago
On the shores of Scotland is a sea house where two tales unravel. Ruth, who is renovating the house, and hiding from her past and found another: mermaid bones buried beneath the floorboards. Ruth’s mother drowned when her daughter was very young, leaving her orphaned. In an attempt to find a piece of her family history, and perhaps an answer to the loss of her mother, Ruth moves back to Scotland, the place her mother was from yet had never told her daughter any details about, only more selkie legends. Over a hundred years before her, the Reverend Alexander Ferguson inhabited the house. A man obsessed with local tales of mermaids and selkies, he was part of a great tragedy the residents still remember. His assistant, a native named Miriam, taught him her family’s legends while he searched for the answer to the question, “Do selkies really exist?” For a themed recipe of Cherry Oat Cupcakes with Cherry Whiskey Frosting, as well as similar recommended books and discussion questions for this one, visit:
TheIndigoQuill More than 1 year ago
See full review @ The Indigo Quill . blogspot . com Special thanks to St. Martin's Press and Litfuse Publicity for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.       Elisabeth Gifford has emerged on the scene as a gifted new author who is on her way to master the art of storytelling. Not only does The Sea House possess a captivating cover, but Gifford writes with a flow so smooth and intrinsic that you'll have no choice but to resolve to wanting more.  Being a first novel, I was very impressed, and I hope to see more from Miss Gifford in the near future. The Sea House is a haunting tale that intertwines lore and verity to where the two are no longer decipherable. Readers will enjoy the mystery and chilling nature of the premise, and become enchanted with this story. It pulled me in quickly. I love the style of writing and the smooth transitions. Not to mention, it's always exciting to read a book from a different country because the linguistics are so different and fresh compared to what I'm used to. I find myself looking up meanings to words and learning something new. Then I can go and look cool in front of my friends. Just kidding...kind of. :) The book is a dual-time narrative that takes place on the Hebrides Islands of Scotland where the young married couple, Ruth and Michael, are renovating an old sea house. Ruth is struggling to break free free the chains of emotional damage from the past as the two try to build a home together. In the process, they discover old bones of a baby who seemed to have been born with its legs fused a mermaid. Thus begins the story of Alexander Ferguson, who was a newly appointed vicar in the 1800's with a scientific background.  There were many things I liked about this book. The tone of it was enchanting and interesting. I honestly wasn't expecting so much mystery to be weaved into the plot, but I loved every bit of it. If I had one thing to pick out that was weak, it would be the present-day characters. I liked them, but I felt more attached to Alexander and Moira than I did Ruth and Michael. However, this being the author's first novel and being a dual-narrative at that is still impressive and I applaud Gifford for a successful start. This is definitely a great read!
LitWinner More than 1 year ago
Many novels come straight out of the author’s imagination.  It is clearly evident that Gifford spent a lot of time and effort researching this novel.  I found the facts she did include fascinating, serving to enrich the story and teach us more about the people and lands that surrounded The Sea House. I did feel that the story started out a bit slowly; it took me a few chapters to get invested in the story.  I have to admit that for much of the book, I don’t particularly like Ruth.  I don’t know if it’s just a part of her character, as she seems to be taken similarly while she is in foster and group homes as a child, or if it’s just how I interpret her personality. I feel I learned a lot about native Scots.  I really didn’t know much before reading but learned about their parties, their traditions, how they lived and the divide between the rich and the poor.  I like a little history with my fiction and The Sea House fit the bill perfectly. I do feel that Gifford rushed to tie up some loose ends at the end of the book.  It’s almost like she was told to wrap up the story in less pages.  I wish I had learned more about how The Sea House grew as a business and how Ruth and Michael grow as a couple and family.  The epilogue helped answer some questions, but still left me feeling a bit unfulfilled. I received a copy of this book to review but I was not financially compensated in any way. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my observations while reading this novel.
Heart2Heart More than 1 year ago
Sometimes in searching for the truth behind the legends we have read about we find more than we bargained for. In the debut novel, The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford, the reader is tossed between the past and the present surrounding those who have made the Sea House, their home. For Ruth and Michael a newly married couple just starting their new lives together, they dream of restoring this old home into a Bed and Breakfast nestled high above the ever present crashing Scottish sea. While they are in the process of removing the old floorboard, they discover a secret that has been buried beneath the house for more than a century. A small wooden box that bears the skeletal remains of what appears to be a child with fused together legs that leads Michael and Ruth to believe they have discovered what could be a mermaid child. The image and knowledge lodge into Ruth's mind to uncover just who this child was and why was it buried beneath the Sea House. What stories are waiting to be told. It seems that as Ruth is going through the research on the child, she finds herself drawn very much into the parallel life of the child and her own missing family. The only knowledge Ruth has of her own family, is that her mother drowned one night leaving her to spend her childhood years being shuttled from foster home to foster home. Never knowing who her father was, Ruth can identify with the child she has discovered beneath her home. Perhaps in a way, if she can uncover who this child is, she can put to rest the haunting of her own past of not knowing where she came from as well. What she learns takes her back to 1860 where she learns the Sea House belonged to Reverend Alexander Ferguson, the vicar for the small town in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. The Reverend believed in the legends of sea people called Selkies, that his family originated from but there is no physical proof that has been discovered to prove the stories as true or simply the legends of the past. So he begins his own search looking for proof among the lives of the people who live among the island. He finds himself faced with his own personal dilemmas when his faithful maid, Moira faces the eviction of her own family under the land they live on owned by Lord Marstone. Since they are unable to make a living on what they can farm there because of the poor soil and harsh terrain, they are forced to buy food from Marstone. When he comes calling upon their payment of debts and they have no way to pay, he forces them to flee aboard a ship and takes what meager possessions of theirs as payment and burns the homes to the ground. I received The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford compliments of St. Martin's Press and Litfuse Publicity as a free copy for my honest review. I did not recieve any monetary compensation for a favorable review and the opinions expressed here are strictly my own. I have to applaud Ms. Gifford on her first novel. This is truly the stuff you would expect to find when you read an exceptional novel. The writing style reflects both the language and dialog of the past and present in Scotland so it feels authentic. The setting and rich details of both the historic past and contemporary present are so well written, you can feel the salt air on your face, and hear the crashing waves on the rocks below the Sea House. It truly draws the reader in for something unexpected much like searching for mermaid legends and instead you find the truth you've been searching for all along. The characters are well written and I would have liked to have known a bit more about the history behind Lord Marstone a bit more than I got. Readers should be warned that there is some profanity in this one, but these are based on cultural differences between the literature in the US versus that of the UK as I've been told. It doesn't distract from the story in any way. This was truly had me captivated much like Ruth's character as she began to unravel the smallest details bit by bit. I rate this one a 4 out of 5 stars and look forward to more novels from her in the future.