THE GRIPPING BEAST
By: Margot Wadley
St. Martin’s Press: New York
American art teacher Isabel Garth sets off on a
sentimental journey to the Orkney Islands, the childhood home of her
recently deceased father. Though absent from the storm-tossed islands off
the northern coast of Scotland for almost half a century, her father had
regaled her with tales of this far-off land and maintained a correspondence
with his childhood friend, Ben Gowan.
Thus begins a finely crafted, evocative novel of this
wild land, still lost in the mists of time when Viking raiders were
re-writing the heritage of the British Isles. But Isabel’s idyllic search
for her father’s past and her desire to illustrate the journals that
recounted his memories of his homeland turns mysteriously grim when a
self-styled New Age witch warns her of grave danger should she remain in
Orkney. It soon becomes apparent—at least to Isabel-- that some of the
local inhabitants of Digerness are not pleased with her presence on the
island. Were her personal effects rifled through in her hotel room? Was
she deliberately pushed into the roadway on a busy sidewalk? Was the break
line on her rented auto deliberated tampered with? Or are these figments of
her overwrought imagination—especially since she is dealing with major
emotional issues of her own: an unplanned pregnancy by a departed lover,
the death of her father, and now the discovery of the recent death of her
father’s best friend, Ben Gowan?
The answer to Isabel’s may lie in the persistent rumors
that Ben Gowan—and perhaps even her father—had discovered a horde of Viking
treasure while still youngsters. Had the treasure trove been re-buried
somewhere on the island and were present day tomb robbers afraid that Isabel
had discovered its location in the latter day trans-Atlantic correspondence
between the two old friends?
This is an engaging tale of mystery written with an
artist’s eye for evoking a sense of place. The poetry of Margot Wadley’s
prose describes the Orkney Islands as a place of wonder and incredible
beauty—from its rich array of birdlife along the age-old cliffs looming over
the North Sea to the equally rich archaeological treasures of standing
stones and ancient tombs and barrows. In one brief paragraph, the author
sums up the wild beauty of this far-off outpost of ancient civilization:
Here, behind crashing surf and craggy cliffs,
stretched out low hills and pastures, at once both wild and
pastoral. Here flowers bloomed out of the bones of a violent past.
Fence posts imitated gravestones. Hooves of sheep and cattle kicked
up hidden silver and gold, or opened the craws of forgotten graves.
Pillaging Vikings were transformed into Orkney farmers. A bloody
Viking warrior became a saint. (p.172)
Three trowels for this beautifully written book from a
first-time novelist. Sadly, Margot Wadley died in an auto accident in
October of 2001, shortly after The Gripping Beast was published.
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