We are just entering what may be called, ‘the field of vibrations’, a field in which we may find more wonders than the mind can conceive of
The idea of a ‘field of vibration’ – a place where past and present come together and where communication of all kinds is possible – is at the heart of Bernie McGill’s accomplished and beautifully executed new novel The Watch House.
Bernie McGill’s first novel The Butterfly Cabinet, was set in Northern Ireland in 1892 and took inspiration from real life events. The Watch House too, takes inspiration from the past, as it explores the ramifications of the visit to Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast, by men working for Marconi, who aimed to bring radio communication to the world in 1899.
Rathlin is an unforgiving landscape for its people. Nuala Byrne, the protagonist of The Watch House has been left on the island as a child when her family emigrated to Newfoundland. Left alone to look after her aging grandparents, Nuala barely gets by thanks to the gift of healing that has been taught to her by her grandfather.
It’s an odd bittersweet thing to grow up with old people. The taller you get, the more bent and frail they become, like there’s only so much space or straightness to go around.
Nuala is more than aware of life’s hardships. As the promise of her own passage to Newfoundland fades, she accepts the offer of marriage from The Tailor, an aging man with little to offer a young woman other than his kindness and a warm house. Little does Nuala realise that the Tailor’s hard hearted and sharp witted sister Ginny is part of the marriage bargain. Nuala soon realises that she has escaped one form of servitude for another, as she keeps house for the Tailor and Ginny and comes to the conclusion that a much yearned for baby is also unlikely, thanks to the Tailor’s inexperience.
Circumstances change for Nuala with the arrival of Marconi’s men on the island, who are testing out his new Morse code technology. She is installed in the titular watch house as a cook, but her innate intuition for communication is spotted by the Italian Gabriel and she is soon learning the intricacies of this new form of communication. Romance blossoms between the two, but on an island as small as Rathlin, this kind of relationship can’t remain a secret for long and will have devastating consequences for them both.
Bernie McGill has fashioned an historical drama that is intensely readable and scrupulously researched. The island of Rathlin is brought to vivid life as Nuala explores both the hardness and the beauty of it.
A clear, cold night, the sky full of stars, the beam of light from Altacorry reaching out over the sea. The place was silent apart from the ripple of the water. I could have been the only person awake on the whole island. On the way back from the midden, I stopped a moment to look towards the Sound: Fair Head and Torr rising dark to the south, to the east the lights of Sanda and Kintyre.
The supporting cast are just as well drawn, from the sly and sleekit Ginny ‘gumming and shooting dulse into the grate’ to Dougal and Dorothy, Nuala’s steadfast and honest friends. Even the slightest of characters are skillfully presented and the vernacular of the time adds to the significant period detail.
In The Watch House, Rathlin is at a juxtaposition between past and present. Marconi’s men are testing the future in a place that is unchanging and anchored to its past. There is a sense that the land itself, the water, the rocks, the fields, are holding on tight to their history, unwilling to look beyond their own water locked borders.
I stand on Crocknascreidlin and watch the boat come in. It’s a good place to stand, on the hill of the screaming women, above the dark hollow of Lagavistevoir. They’re as loud as they were when Drake’s men came and slaughtered all the men of the island. I am silent. I let them scream for me. They’re keening for my heart.
Nuala feels the same, but is hopeful for a different future. She is a compelling and a complex character – smart yet sheltered, open yet guarded. She yearns for skills, for knowledge and knows that learning is the only thing she can truly have for herself.
I am between two ticks if the clock, between one swing of the pendulum and the next, between the last thing that happened and the thing that is yet to come. I am in a gap in time where it might be possible to go forward or go back, or stay in between and do both
Since she was a young girl, Nuala has heard the voices of the dead. Like Marconi’s men, she is a conduit, between one place and another, translating messages, voices and meanings that arrive to her in their own form of code.
This theme of communication and translation is the backbone of The Watch House. As Nuala and the other residents of the island struggle to come to terms with this new method of communication, their mistrust is formed by their old superstitions and their unwillingness to see change coming in the future.
Ginny says it’s not right to separate a person from their words, to put that much sea between the two. A body could say anything then feel no responsibility for it…A word is a thing to keep close, always, she says.
Nuala’s openness to the new technology comes from her very situation. She feels that she has always been a translator. She receives messages from the dead and tries to decipher what they are telling her. She receives letters from her family in Newfoundland and has to read between the lines to find the truth. When Ginny asks her what she has been doing all day at the watch house, she simplifies her answer to suit her audience.
Gabriel needn’t talk to me about deciphering code, about transatlantic messages. All my life I’ve been translating signals between here and the other side of the ocean
Between Gabriel and Nuala there is Gaelic, English, Italian and Morse – all codes to be deciphered and translated. Listening becomes as important as speaking, yet their mistake is not to realise that other people are listening and translating too. As Nuala comes to realise that she will always be stuck in that ‘gap of time’ a new narrative voice is introduced to give the reader a different perspective, to translate Nuala’s story in a different way.
The Watch House is a moving, tender and elegant novel that cements Bernie McGill’s reputation. Meticulously researched and incredibly detailed, the story of Nuala and Gabriel transcends it’s historical setting to become a universal exploration into the power of language and ultimately, the power of hope.
My thanks to Bernie McGill for sending me a review of The Watch House for review. If you’d like to find out more about her work (and I urge you to!) check out her website , watch the Book Trailer for The Watch House here or follow her on Twitter @berniemcgill
Bernie’s first collection of short stories, was published in May 2013 by Whittrick Press and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2014. The title story was first prizewinner in the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest (US) and the collection includes ‘Home’, a supplementary prizewinner in the 2010 Bridport Short Story Prize and ‘No Angel’, Second Prizewinner in the Seán Ó Faoláin and the Michael McLaverty Short Story Prizes. Her work has been anthologised in The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. She is the recipient of a number of Arts Council Awards including an ACES Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast and an award from the Society of Authors.
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