The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson is a Scottish historical mystery featuring a doctor’s wife, Queen Victoria, an infrastructure project to bring clean water to Glasgow from the wild and beautiful lochs, and the sithichean (fairies).
It is a story of water and the fate of two different women, both expecting their ninth child, and their husbands; one who is ignorant until the end, the other who looks the threat in the eye and shivers. The pregnant women, who have never met, are the Queen and Isabel, wife of Dr Alexander Aird, physician to the water construction project. The Airds live on the remote and basic construction site in a stone cottage called Fairy Knoll, alongside the drilling and tunnelling of the water project. There are two stories here – a historical saga about health and living conditions for the families which struggle both in Glasgow tenements and of the navvies that work on the water project; and a mystical story of a preacher stolen by the fairies in 1692 who returns 167 years later to talk and walk with Isabel Aird. His purpose is not clear but he is egged on by a fairy voice with whom he has made an unearthly deal. The link with Queen Victoria is tenuous and, after a strong introduction, this strand goes silent for a long time.
The tale is told by the Aird’s neighbour and servant Kirsty McEchern, alternating with Robert Kirke the preacher and, briefly, Prince Albert. At times the transition between viewpoints is sudden and confusing and I admit to skipping over some of the Robert Kirke passages. Sometimes his dialect merged into a following section by Kirsty and this took me away from the story. But I did like the character of Isabel Aird and the portrayal of her journey through the grief for her eight miscarriages. Inspired by contemporary women such as Florence Nightingale and Anne Lister, Isabel fights against her husband’s expectations that she pursue a gentlewoman’s traditional life. The juxtaposition of the Queen, Isabel and Kirsty demonstrates that women, whatever their class and education, face many of the same trials in life and have the similar mental and physical fortitude when called upon.
Magnusson is a confident writer in this period and I believed in the construction site she describes near Loch Chon and Loch Katrine. Many characters and incidents are based on real people and events including many places in the Trossachs national park which to this day bear fairy names. The Queen Victoria strand promised much but was under-used. I wished the story had more pace and for this reason the first three-quarters of the book was a 3* for me, rising to 4* for the last quarter which races along. A special mention goes to the glorious purple thistle cover.
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