by Rebekah Benoit
Scotland is the kind of place tailor-made for the setting of a novel. A dramatic landscape, complete with deep, dark lochs, quaint villages and menacing forests, a rich history that includes centuries of strife, folklore and an abiding belief in the supernatural, colourful locales that dislike outsiders…you really couldn’t ask for a more atmospheric backdrop for a book.
This is the world that Sara Gruen brings to brilliant life in her latest, At the Water’s Edge. I loved Water For Elephants, like so many other readers, so when I saw a new book by this author, I virtually snatched it off the shelf.
Gruen doesn’t disappoint her fans, though at first, this story seemed a tad farfetched. As World War II enters its final grim months, to high-society American Madeline Hyde and her husband Ellis, the battlefields couldn’t be further away. The Hydes, married for only a few years, are fighting a battle of their own, petty though it may be.
Ellis has been rejected for service by the army, not once but twice, because of his severe colour blindness, much to the displeasure of his father, a celebrated colonel. His parents still haven’t gotten over their shock at his choice of bride. Madeline’s mother, once the belle of New York’s social scene, disgraced herself by running away with another man, and Madeline still carries the burden of her mother’s soiled reputation.
After a disastrous New Year’s Eve party at which Ellis, Madeline and their constant third-wheel Hank embarrass themselves, the elder Hydes have had enough, casting their disappointing son and his scandalous wife out of their house. The only way to redeem themselves, Ellis and Madeline decide, is to dig up an old family scandal and repair the family’s damaged honour. Decades earlier, Colonel Hyde found fame as the first man to photograph the Loch Ness monster. Once the photographs were exposed as fakes, however, Ellis’s father left Scotland in shame. It’s a topic that is never discussed in the Hyde household. Ellis and Madeline believe that if they can capture the monster on film, they will redeem the Hyde name and wriggle back into the family graces.
After a hellish cross-Atlantic journey, dodging torpedos the whole way, the Hydes and Hank arrive in Scotland, in the picturesque village near Loch Ness. Within hours, Madeline finds herself completely alone. Her husband has disappeared with his friend, monster-hunting, while Madeline is left to fend for herself in the village’s only inn.
Lonely and depressed, Maddie befriends the inn’s proprietors, the barmaid Meg, chambermaid Anna and surly Angus Grant, the innkeeper. Life is not easy in the village – each day brings more bad news from the war, telegrams reporting the deaths of loved ones, rationed food, blackouts and air raids. But at the same time, Maddie begins to make real friends for the first time in her life, discovering ways to make herself useful and finding a purpose in life.
But as she rediscovers herself, Maddie makes dangerous realizations about the true nature of her marriage and her husband. Loch Ness is a perfect metaphor for Maddie’s troubled marriage – beneath the glossy surface lies dark, potentially deadly secrets. As Maddie finds herself pulled deeper into the life of the village and its residents, including a growing attraction to Angus, clearly a man haunted by his own demons, she must come face-to-face with the ugliness at the centre of her own marriage.
At first, I raised my eyebrows at the premise of this novel – Loch Ness monster? Really? – but as I dug into this novel, I realized that the core of the story isn’t the monster at all. Rather, it’s the metaphor of the loch itself for the dark secrets that lie at the centre of relationships, sometimes just below the surface, and the bravery it takes to face those monsters head on. Gruen does an impressive job of bringing the beauty and harshness of the Scottish landscape to life, and the story itself, while romanticized, is deeply satisfying and a compelling read.