A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford is a historical mystery moving between post-World War Two Scotland and the Arctic in the nineteenth century. This is an ambitious, well-researched dual timeline story encompassing exploitation of the Inuit people, the whaling industry, racial prejudice, the maintenance of sprawling country estates and the iron will of a mother for her son to marry the woman she prefers rather than the woman he loves. In 1949, Caro moves to Kelly Castle near Dundee with husband Alasdair and new baby Felicity, to live with his mother Martha. As the two women scratch along together, Martha asks Caro to organise the family records which have fallen into confusion. Sorting the piles of documents, Caro finds an intriguing photograph of Oliver Gillan, Alasdair’s great-grandfather, and two unknown young women. As she sets out to identify the strangers, workmen on the estate uncover bones of a woman in an unmarked grave. Caro jumps to the assumption that the bones might belong to one of the women in the photograph.
This 1949 storyline is alternated with that a century earlier of Oliver, a medical student, who grew up at Kelly Castle. Gifford lays clues for the reader – could Caro’s mysterious bones be those of one of two girls befriended by his family when he was growing up? And are these the girls in the mystery photo? He is keen on Louisa, her sister Charlotte is keen on Oliver; his mother is keen on neither girl. Oliver leaves home to study medicine in Edinburgh but finds himself instead in Dundee as medical officer on a whaling ship, the Narwhal, bound for the Arctic.
I finished the book with mixed feelings. I loved the Arctic sections and wanted more. The 1949 sections left me feeling curiously flat and wonder if the viewpoint affected my response. I so wanted to hear Yarat’s voice directly, instead we see her only through Oliver’s diary and Caro’s imagination.
This was a slow read for me, I delayed picking it up again which surprised me as I loved Gifford’s The Lost Lights of St Kilda. Erratic shifts between chapters didn’t help, the jerky changes of subject took me away from the page and the mystery interested me less than the story of Oliver’s life. I most enjoyed reading about the Arctic and the emotional upheaval of falling in love with a woman so alien to your own home and the repercussions that must be faced.
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Read my 5* review of THE LOST LIGHTS OF ST KILDA also by Elizabeth Gifford
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