Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

All things have a way of coming back to us in the end. Even if just as a memory from long ago, they are still with us….always.

Memories are a funny thing. How accurate are your memories? Has your subconscious twisted your memories and changed the from what really happened to what you remember? How much can you truly trust your memory? Those little moments of déjà vu, was it just that or perhaps you had really been there before in a past life. What recalls a memory most to you, scent? Sound? A place?

There is much that science doesn’t know about memory and much that simply cannot be explained. What if memories could be passed down, like DNA from generation to generation and you just inherit them the same way you do eye color? That is the question that Susanne Kearsley explores in her book The Winter Sea….could time travel through Jungian theory be possible?

Writer, Carrie McClelland is uncannily drawn to the northern Scottish town of Cruden Bay, home to a ruined castle known as Slains Castle (the castle was also the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

After researching her new book in France for months, she is still at square one. Her characters won’t come alive and she can’t get even an outline committed to paper. She decides to take a break and visit her agent friend, Jane, who lives in Scotland. On her way there, she takes a detour and stops at the costal town of Cruden Bay to admire the castle.

She feels a strong pull to the castle and cannot bring herself to stay away…she knows her story is meant to be here and not in France. So she packs up all her stuff in France and rents a small cottage in the village and begins writing.

The words and story flow onto the page in long sweeping, fluid lines….it is unlike anything she has written before. It is like she is channeling her characters from a different time and a different place….Jacobean era Scotland in fact.

It is here at Slains Castle that heroine Sophia Paterson meets the dashing Lt Col John Moray. Sophia and Moray fall deeply in love and are separated by circumstance and a treacherous plot to restore King James to the Scottish throne.

As Carrie writes her novel, she is driven by her characters speaking strongly in her ears and the strange thing is….Sophia Paterson is her relative. Carrie is telling the true story of her ancestors. The visions are so vivid and compelling that Carrie is being entirely consumed by them. It is more than just being a psychic medium or dreaming a story….the story is in her soul.

She seeks out a local doctor who she has come to trust and they have come up with the only logical explanation….she has inherited her ancestors memories and channeling their stories. That is why she feels so drawn to the castle and the town, that is why the salty sea air smells like home to her….the characters won’t let her rest until she has told their story.

While the writing consumes her, Carrie meets two brothers from the local village. Her landlord, Jimmy, has two sons who are as different from each other as oil and vinegar–Stuart and Graham.

Stuart has designs on Carrie from the moment he sees her on the plane from France to Scotland. He is a shameless flirt and she sees it instantly….this is not the kind of man a woman settles down with and dates…he is more of a passing fling. Carrie is not looking for a fling, and she doesn’t want to be distracted from her writing, but Stuart can’t take the hint that she is not interested in him in that way.

While she is out on the beach one day she meets Graham, Stuart’s older brother. Now him….she would more than welcome a distraction from. Graham has a different aura about him. Something about him calls to Carrie.

Carrie doesn’t want to share Graham anymore than Sophia wants to share Moray in her novel….but sometimes time, circumstance, and memories gets in the way.

This mystical novel snuck up on me. I like that the story toggles through a modern setting back to the Jacobite setting with the two storied intertwining and mirroring each other. But at the beginning most of the story was set in the modern world and the historic piece was a little slow going, but then as the story went on, the historic pieces were more frequent which helped move the pace of the novel along and hooked me.

Slains Castle

There has been a lot of debate about this book on Goodreads about it being similar to Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander series. I will admit that was one of the things that drew me to this book. I would say while there are bits of The Winter Sea that are Outlander-ish, comparing it to Outlander is unfair. This is a stand alone book not an epic series….one can’t hope to compare the two books. Others say the story telling and prose is also similar to Mary Stewart’s style….

I think it is unfair to try and compartmentalize this book against others….surly this book had a rich, sweeping prose like Stewart and the Highland romanticism like Gabaldon, but it was so different than either of those writers and truly stands out as a unique story all on it’s own.

The castle is described so vividly that I can almost feel the salty sea spray on my face and the wind lashing at my hair….I can totally see the romanticism of a little cottage by the sea and a dark ruined castle emerging from the craggy granite. Kearsley really captured the mystical romanticism of the Highlands like something out of a dream. The tone of the book had the ghost of a gothic novel in it….it was like reading a gothic classic at time, the storytelling had hints from  The Bride of Lammermoor and Wuthering Heights….I loved the castle and the mystical setting….I am totally making a stop at Slains Castle when I got to Scotland!

She also did a great job breaking down the Jacobite history well. As I have said before, I am not very familiar with Highland history and while I was reading Outlander, I struggled with the history elements. In The Winter Sea, Kearsley explains the Jacobite uprising in a way that a normal person who knows nothing about the period could understand. I loved her for that! I also loved that she translated the Doric brogue for the reader….I struggled with it from time to time.

The only thing that kept me from giving it 5 stars instead of the 4 that I awarded was the ending. I wasn’t quite sure if the historic portion ending was indeed reality or a fabrication of Carrie as a writer. That troubled me, I felt cheated in some small way by not knowing if it was fact or fabrication….but then again how much can you rely on a memory :).

I thought the concept of the DNA/time travel memory thing was intriguing and plausible. I wasn’t sure that it would work for me at first, but after the explanation the author offers and marinating on the concept for a day or two, I decided that it does make sense in a strange way and makes for an interesting device in the story.

Overall this was a intriguing book, it snuck up on me and surprised me, sinking its claws in to my heart and not letting go until the last page.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

  • Kindle Edition
  • Published (first published September 22nd 2008)
  • ASIN B004W03X7Q

This book counts toward: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Recommendation: 4 out of 5 (intriguing historic romance cloaked in mysticism)

Genre: Historic fiction, romance, time travel

Memorable lines/quotes:

When he sees the open road, he wonders only how far it will carry him. There is nae future in a man like that (115)

…the fields might fall to fallow and the birds might stop their song awhile; the growing things might die and lie in silence under snow, while through it all the cold sea wore its face of storms and death and sunken hopes…and yet unseen beneath the waves a warmer current ran that, in its time, would bring the spring.

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