An ancient, brooding castle; a precocious and dispossessed child; an unfortunate marriage; a lifelong passion for one errant man; wars, crises and personal feuds; death, birth and the exigencies of fortune.
Ah, yes--I said to myself--here we go again! All the cliche'd but nonetheless happily received ingredients of the historical romance. And, yes--Reay Tannahill's "A Dark and Distant Shore" does indeed serve up this rather overfamiliar amalgam, but it is as far from a mere rehash of hackneyed ideas as Land's End is from John o' Groats.
At the age of 6 in 1803, Vilia Cameron reluctantly leaves her home in the West Highlands of Scotland. Tannahill, while filling the subsequent 592 pages with the story of how Cameron regains the Castle of Kinvail for her family, ushers the reader through pretty well all the main events of the rest of the century--on three continents and in several countries. Very well done it is, too, with the meticulous and esoteric detail on manners, dress, money, law and industry to be expected from a social historian of repute, and author of the fascinating "Sex in History" and its hardly less enthralling companion volume "Food in History."
Unlike many novels in this mode, however, transitions in opinion, fashion and political thinking from the Regency to the last years of Victoria are touched on with assured finesse and not intruded artificially into the narrative as mere devices to change the scene or indicate the passage of time. As a result one becomes caught up in the flow of the years.
Nor is this all. Reay Tannahill is a fine storyteller with a beautiful command of English, a sound ear for dialogue and an appreciation of the scenery and climatic vagaries of the Highlands that is downright poetic. Moreover, she can convey her feeling for that dramatic landscape with so evocative a clarity that one can almost hear the sea gulls mewing and smell the salt on the damp wind.
The book follows the history of four generations of two families, complicated by all possible bonds of relationship both legitimate and reprehensible. In my experience such sagas often lapse into confusion as the characters proliferate, but Tannahill has as sure a way with character as with background, and her subsidiary family members and servants are as clearly drawn as the principals.
In particular, Vilia Cameron is a believably paradoxical human being whose progress from youth to old age is marked by fine psychological probability. Vilia's lover, Perry Randall, is also a continually engaging character whose absences from the main story line are used skillfully to keep the reader's interest; he, like Vilia, ages and alters with a thoroughgoing and prosaic probability not often vouchsafed to "heroes." The end of the long love affair, dry, accepting, scarcely tragic, is, again, managed with a graceful fidelity to human truth much more affecting than any more histrionic renunciation could be.
Drama there is in plenty, of course, and tragedy and evil deeds, but the villains are carefully drawn, their descent into perfidy gradual and prepared for by a valid mix of character defects, accident and outside influence. And they never strain credulity by being totally obnoxious.
Because the author's descriptions of Scotland are so good, one is conscious that she is less sure of her ground in America, France and India. Nevertheless, this is much more a historical novel than a historical romance, and if there is a little too much history (perhaps it was not necessary to bring in every major martial and political crisis of the Victorian era quite so directly), the pace seldom slackens for more than a page or two.
Escape it is, of course, but in a stimulating and unusually rational form. At the end of the book (and the entire rainy weekend it took to read it), I was left with that particular sense--half loss, half irritation--that meant I badly wanted more!