Missing Pieces by Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Discovered in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in 1831 were the Lewis Chessmen which may constitute some of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets. When found, the hoard contained 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen and one belt buckle. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets—only one knight, four rooks, and forty-four pawns are missing—about three pounds of ivory treasure.

Today, 82 pieces are owned and usually exhibited by the British Museum in London, and the remaining 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Who carved them? Where? How were they discovered in the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland?

Creating a plausible answer to some of these questions is Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar’s fictional story titled Missing Pieces. To date, few actual facts about these chessmen have been discovered. However, clues from medieval sagas; others from modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games have provided some information.

All these ideas have been incorporated into Missing Pieces. Dunbar introduces her story in the modern times. In 2008 Marianne Mackay is working at the British Museum as an archaeologist and Laboratory Technician. She is not in a good place emotionally, so she keeps to herself. She also believes that her boss might be trying to discredit her in her workplace. She is therefore surprised and apprehensive when directed to go the remote Lewis Island to promote an exhibit for the Lewis Chessmen, without any information as to what her role will entail.

This storyline in the book is told in the third person. Other narratives from earlier times in the book are presented in the first person. These include a story set in Iceland in 1190, about a woman called Magrit who is tasked with carving these chess pieces out of walrus ivory. Another storyline, set in the same year, is about Morven who discovers a sailor and the pieces washed up on the shore of the Isle of Lewis. While yet another aspect of the overall tale imagined by Dunbar, is of a woman called Mhairi or Catherine McLeod, on Isle of Lewis set in 1831 when the treasure again comes to light.

During the telling of the earlier stories the reader learns much about the early history on the Isle of Lewis and the islanders’ way of life and struggles under powerful landlords who often exercised their right to evict, little concerned about their previous tenants. The strong influence of the Church, at the time, which was very puritanical and abhorred anything to do with Catholicism is highlighted. At the time when the chessmen were found items such as this were often seen as papist icons and feared. However, this did not stop the Churchmen taking hold of them and using them for their own benefit.  Reference is also made of the high-quality Harris tweed, which was traditionally woven on handlooms by the crofters in their home.

When reading this story, I felt compelled to learn more about both the chessmen and the people living in these isolated wild places. It was lovely to watch the main protagonist, Marianne’s growth from a grumpy, angry unconfident person to a strong, humorous and determined young woman who would not allow herself to be cowed. This is a story of several strong women and their connection to the treasure found. I believe the mystery around the actual number of pieces that ended up in the museum adds greatly to the enjoyment of the book.

Today the Lewis Chessmen have been replicated and reimagined in many different ways. As well as their Harry Potter cameo, they’ve also appeared in the manga graphic novel Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure and as a giant Lego sculpture made up of over 90,000 bricks, created at the National Museum of Scotland.

Although I have read several books which use this format, where the protagonist is employed in such a profession as to be uniquely suited to the task of discovering the history behind the treasures, that are real and not imagined, they have all been enjoyable and intriguing reads, expanding my knowledge about such items. Usually, the protagonist discovers that she also has a history connected to the items found.

The author’s love of history and mythology to explore the stories left untold in conventional historical accounts, clearly shines through in this story. Her previous work as a social worker also provides her with a rich source of material to develop her colourful and complex characters and compelling plots.

Missing Pieces


by Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar

MidnightSun Publishing


$32.99; 304pp


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