The House by The Loch
This is a novel with a sense of place and belonging. The author, respected broadcaster Kirsty Wark, born in Dumfries, has a strong affiliation with Galloway, a lesser-known part of Scotland compared with the Highlands and Islands, but with its own unique and undiscovered charm. There is even a helpful map indicating locations in the story.
This is Wark’s second novel, set in an area close to her heart. The characters she depicts, too, seem to have a special place in her affections, particularly the protagonist Walter, who is partly modelled on her own father. In this three-generational story it is Walter who is drawn to the remote location of Loch Doon, owning the property evinced in the book’s title.
A countryman at heart, in the 1950s Walter is entranced by the clever and glamorous Jean, from Ayr, whose wealthy father and reclusive mother are flawed characters. When Jean and Walter marry, she believes she will cope with escaping from her parents’ influence to make her home by the loch, but soon feels trapped by her new environment, far from the hectic social round she formerly enjoyed. Walter is a loving and reliable husband but his job as an engineer often takes him away, leaving Jean with two small children to manage on her own. In time, her inner demons emerge and alcoholism takes over her life, contributing to her untimely death, which is subtly linked to a denouement later in the novel.
The house remains a constant, the adult children and grandchildren still taking their holidays with Walter for whom they all have an enduring affection. But one fateful weekend their world is turned upside down by a tragedy at the loch, the aftermath of which has repercussions for every individual. As the years pass, each is drawn back to the beautiful, consoling place but with an added uneasy dimension of coming to terms with a grim reality.
The author handles the reactions of the family skilfully with her understanding of the frailties of human nature: arrogance, jealousy, secretiveness, mendacity and fear. She is aware that the two secrets the story holds can have a cathartic effect when eventually disclosed. She also addresses the devastation of the loss of a child and the profound effect on a parent and siblings. She knows, too, that life moves on and can be softened by interaction in a close-knit family. She explores the sometimes tenuous relationships between mothers and daughters and the power of unconditional love of a father and grandfather.
The locations are real and the characters fictional but the result is a credible cohesion. Ultimately, Wark binds together an inescapable landscape and the family who people it.