I haven’t read anything else by Peter May so I don’t know if the dual timeline is characteristic of his work, but it is used here to add depth and interest to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward detective novel about an apparently domestic murder: when the Québec Sureté are called to a remote island to investigate the murder of one of the inhabitants, it seems immediately clear that his wife must be the killer. Sime Mackenzie (pronounced “Sheem”; it’s Gaelic) isn’t so sure, though, because he feels oddly drawn to Kirsty Cowell, the woman who is likely to be arrested. Is his feeling that he has met her before real, or is it a product of the prolonged sleeplessness that has followed the break-up of his marriage?
The Magdalen Islands are an archipelago in the Gulf of St Lawrence with a population of French, Scots, English and Acadians, and part of the province of Quebec; Entry Island, however, is English-speaking, and that is why Sime has been sent as part of the investigation team – to conduct interviews in English. With him he takes the baggage of his own Scots descent, distant memories of the brutal Highland Clearances which uprooted thousands of impoverished Highlanders, often putting them straight onto emigration ships bound for Canada, where those who survived the journey must make a life for themselves in the young colony. Thanks to his grandmother, Sime has grown up with the stories of his ancestry on the Isle of Lewis, but his rediscovery of that history as an adult, reading the diaries of an earlier Sime Mackenzie -- extracts provide the second timeline I referred to above -- is woven throughout his investigation of the present-day murder:
The first time I strayed further from our village than Sgagarstaigh, or Ard Mor […] I was amazed at the size of our island. Once you left the sea behind you, you could walk all day without ever seeing it again. But the land was pitted with wee lochs reflecting the sky, and it broke up the monotony of the landscape.
The thing that amazed me most, though, was the size of the sky. It was enormous. You saw much more of it than ever you did at Baile Mhanais. And it was always changing with the wind.
When I first saw Atlantic Canada (from the air only, sadly; I’ve never been able to visit properly), I was struck by how familiar a landscape it must have looked to the homeless Highlanders, an impression further reinforced by the writings of Alistair MacLeod, that wonderful chronicler of Nova Scotia. Here, too, the parallels between Hebridean Lewis and the Canadian Entry Island are drawn, and the Highlanders’ forced displacement juxtaposed against that of Kirsty, who refuses to leave the island where she grew up.
A haunting story of exile and loss, Entry Island will stay with you long after you finish reading.
Note: My review copy came courtesy of www.lovereading.co.uk