Reviewed by Ian Lipke
When mankind accepts evil, the good tread with great care that they are not themselves ensnared. Charles Ballantyre almost delayed too long. His daughter’s happiness and the life of a good man hung in the balance.
In Scotland 1893 a poacher is shot and killed on the estate of a wealthy landowner. A stablehand James Douglas is blamed for the killing and, to the consternation of Evelyn Ballantyre, the laird’s daughter, flees the scene. A second man is murdered and blame for this killing is laid at the fugitive’s feet. Evelyn knows he is innocent of these crimes. After all he was with her when they occurred, but nobody is listening.
Joining her father on an expedition to the wild Nipigon River in Canada Evelyn hopes to break down the pall of suspicion that separates her affectionate nature from his. Attaching himself to Evelyn’s party, however, is Rupert Dalston, a man that Charles Ballantyre holds at arm’s length while appearing to support his presence on the expedition. Evelyn is charmed by the young man’s attention. Suddenly, her world turns upside down. She is shocked to find that their guide, having joined them after a delayed sojourn in the wilderness, is the missing man James Douglas. Evelyn realises she has never ceased loving James. What is he doing travelling with the expedition? She knows that he is no killer but the other members do not. Why is he risking arrest? Why is Dalston determined that James will be arrested and hanged? The key lies with Charles Ballantyre, her father.
The book is at almost 400 pages in length and is, therefore, not unusually long. It is not the most exciting story I have ever read and I put it aside. Feeling guilty that I had not given the author a fair hearing I returned to the proof copy. Too much was unresolved. What this means is that Sarah Maine has provided a fascinating glimpse into a world foreign to most of her readers, and tells the story at a pace that does not shackle the reader to the text. The plot has substance but the telling does not do it justice. Only as the tale nears the climax do we read prose that is captivating.
Maine creates an engaging story after a slow and frustrating start. She populates her book with men who seem unable to communicate except through platitudes. Fishing plays a significant part in the lives of these men but this reader was never fully convinced that they had anything but a superficial knowledge of their sport. I read the book with a sense of unease. About midway through the book, Evelyn’s exasperation boils over when her pompous father utters one of the many commonplaces she finds trying. It is a simple act of disgruntlement but serves to ease the story into a direction that will save it.
“Perseverance and patience, my dear Dalston, wins the day.” He turned to address Evelyn. “And you, my dear, how did you spend the morning?”
“Doing nothing very useful,” she said, and moved aside as James passed her carrying rods and paddles”. (174)
The men in typical Victorian fashion continue to treat their women as fragile goods whose sensitivities are easily shattered. But it is about now that Nature plays a not insignificant part. The river becomes wilder, storms threaten, a large tree falls across the women’s tent and James not only rescues Evelyn and her companion but ignites a passion in Evelyn that cannot be suppressed.
Answers begin to emerge from the stiff upper lips of the English gentry. A convoluted plan on the part of Evelyn’s father saves James from the gallows and unmasks a killer, but by this time, nobody cares what the laird’s motives were or why he could not have supported James earlier, only that the murderer is finally identified, and the potential tear in the societal fabric is mended. As for Evelyn and James, they have a lot of future to plan together.
A book succeeds if it has an interesting plot, gripping dialogue, humour, and an interesting setting. Here and there this book does not satisfy those criteria. Nobody could complain about the setting either in Scotland or on the wild Nipigon River. Imagine coming upon this while walking.
The trail narrowed still further, closing in to form a cool dark tunnel which brought them eventually to a small clearing which overlooked a bend in the river. At one side was a stand of silver birch and the low sunlight lit the slender trunks with a brilliant starkness, while the yellow leaves trembled and dropped to join their fellows below. (199)
Maine’s control of the picture within which her tale plays out is faultless.
The plot is complex but hangs together to expose a story worth telling. Possibly because it was set in Victorian times it grew less interesting after the fuss of the early murders dies down. It certainly reproduced the key features of Victorianism. The sentences were long and complicated. The characters were dour, spoke formally at all times, and appeared to have come along before humour was invented. There was the occasional burst of low key repartee but no laugh out loud moments, no wry comments to help the days to pass.
Multiple pages of this sort of dialogue,
“Walk back with me, my dear,” her father said, turning to her, “unless you’ve a mind to fish a little longer” (198)
becomes wearing. How much more refreshing is it to read,
…it was enough that he was holding her again, her hair a sweet blend of wood smoke and balsam, her skin smooth beneath the shirt –
Skinner hawked noisily and then spat.
“There’s no time fer that.”
James spun around and sat up. “Skinner!…” He turned back to Evelyn, shielding her while she buttoned her shirt. (287)
I cheered to see non-stuffy human behaviour emerging after a long absence. It gave me hope that other characters might show a touch of warmth themselves. The unmasking of the murderer did see a loosening in the men’s attitudes to each other but it was far too late in the story for this change to have much effect.
If tales of human relationships set in an uptight society interests you, buy the book and enjoy Sarah Maine. This is a book written with a female audience in mind, and presumably might receive a different review from a woman reader.
By Sarah Maine
Hodder & Stoughton (Allen & Unwin)