My most recent experience of historical fiction reminded me once again of why I love the genre: when done right, it simultaneously immerses you in and humanizes the past. This is what Ailish Sinclair achieved in her beautifully penned novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, set in the late 1500s in Scotland.
When I first began blogging a year ago, Ailish’s was one of the first blogs I followed because of her unique synthesis of photography and storytelling. Her pictures of the Scottish countryside, coupled with explanatory snippets and musings, drew me in from the get-go—and not simply because I love Scottish history and culture. It was the milieu that she created through these posts leading up to her book, that convinced me I absolutely had to read it in order to fully experience the story each post alluded to.
The book was no disappointment.
This is because Sinclair’s extensive research does not call attention to itself. Instead, she illuminates every scene with just enough details to place the reader in the mind and shoes of the protagonist, Isobell (which is especially crucial, given the first-person narration).
It is also important because of the sensory nature of the story.
Sinclair spends the first 2/3 of the book developing a magical aura to fit the mysterious setting in which Isobell finds herself, essentially charming the reader with thoughts of faeries, mist, butterflies and so on. And then the magic stops. That is, the good magic. The detail suddenly becomes a conduit of horror as Isobell’s world shifts from that of marital bliss in a castle to that of a nightmare in which pure evil is championed as the hand of God. Enter: the Aberdeen witch trials. Seemingly overnight, we are plunged with Isobell into the cold waters of cruelty, and the only sights, sounds, smells, and feelings we read of make her recent life seem worlds away.
One of the most unexpectedly compelling details I found was the description of the castle after the main ordeal has transpired. To avoid spoiling too much, I will just say that the former magic of familiar places is replaced by a haunting remembrance of the evil that occurred there, whose lingering dread is depicted just as potently as the vivacity and charm that once filled the walls.
I found this compelling because it is something that all of us can appreciate in some way. Most of us haven’t been to Scottish castles, and hopefully none of us have been tried for witchcraft. But all of us have memories tied to certain places. We remember the smells, the sound of our feet when passing through, the sounds we might hear, the faces we might see. And when something drastic happens there—whether good or bad—it becomes almost impossible to separate those sensory details from the joy, pain, fear, or whatever feeling that event aroused. Places we once considered bastions of security and comfort can become graveyards of unwelcome memories. This is where I connected with Isobell: I connected with her when the fragility of her world suddenly mirrored the fragility of mine. So to speak, I met her in the details.
If you haven’t checked out Ailish Sinclair’s book or blog, I strongly encourage you to do so. For those of who already like historical fiction, it’s a delicious literary morsel. 🙂 And for those who don’t normally gravitate to the genre, you’re bound to appreciate the human quality Sinclair brings to an otherwise distant time and place.
What are some books where you found the vivid description crucial to forming a connection with the characters?
What does it usually take to connect you with a character?