1648. Alie Gowdie marries Richard Webster during a turbulent time in Scotland’s history. Charles I is about to lose his head, and little does Alie know that she too will meet a grisly end within the year.
2019. Sarah Sutherland is struggling to cope with the demands of her day job, caring for her elderly father and keeping tabs on her backpacking daughter. She wanted to be an archaeologist, but now in her forties, she is divorced, alone, and there seems to be no respite, no glimmer of excitement on the horizon. However, she does have a special affinity with the Kilgour Witch, Alie Gowdie, who lived in Sarah’s cottage until her execution in 1648, and Sarah likes nothing better than to retreat into a world of sorcery, spells and religious fanaticism.
Her stories delight tourists as she leads them along the cobbled streets of her home town, but what really lies behind the tale of Alie Gowdie, the Kilgour Witch? Can Sarah uncover the truth in order to right a centuries-old wrong? And what else might modern-day Kilgour be hiding, just out of sight?
I love a book that draws parallels between the past and the modern day and Sandra Ireland’s Sight Unseen does not disappoint!
Set in the small Scottish town of Kilgour, the novel follows Sarah Sutherland. Long-suffering supermarket manager by day, Sarah indulges in her passion for history at night by running storytelling walks for Kilgour’s tourists, telling them tales of Alie Gowdie, the Kilgour Witch. With her marriage long ended, her daughter off travelling the world, and her aging father becoming increasingly dependant on her, Sarah worries that it might be too late to turn her passion into anything more than a side-hustle.
But when she gets asked to help transcribe the newly unearthed diaries of the Rev. Wilkie, Alie’s principle accuser, Sarah uncovers some dark secrets hiding behind the story of the Kilgour Witch. Could these long-buried truths provide Sarah with a way out of her humdrum existence? And might they be related to the ‘figures’ her father keeps seeing out of the corner of his eye? In both the past and the present, it seems Kilgour has more than a few things that some people might prefer stayed hidden.
Whilst I’m not entirely sure that ‘thriller’ is the best categorisation for Sight Unseen, I really enjoyed the pacy mystery at the heart of the book and the way the various plot strands interconnected. Without giving any of the plot away, there are some really interesting and unexpected connections between the story of Alie Gowdie and the plight of several women in Kilgour in the present day, as well as between Sarah’s investigations and her father’s ‘figures’.
Sandra Ireland has done such a good job of weaving all of the seemingly disperate strands of the plot together, and drawing parallels between the past and present. I was fascinated by the history around which the novel is based and the novel really captures the magic of archival research – that tenative hope that you might discover long-buried secrets hidden away amidst the crabbed scrawl of country parson, or the official records of a workhouse.
I found main character Sarah to be a compelling and likeable lead. Juggling the stresses of the day job with the pains of an empty nest, the regrets for roads not taken, and the strain of looking after an aging father, Sarah is fantastically relatable. Whether it’s fretting over the morality of her budding romance with a much younger man, or sinking a double gin and tonic at the end of a long day dealing with customer complaints about missing chicken legs, Sarah comes across as gloriously flawed and human. As Sight Unseen promises to be part of a series, I’m looking forward to seeing what Sarah does next given how much she develops over the course of the novel.
Sarah’s father John, the other character whose point of view we get to see, provides an interesting alternate perspective and a sympathetic portrayal of aging that is so rarely seen in books. Whilst deterioriating physically and increasingly dependant on Sarah, John is sharp, knowledgeable and determined, and I enjoyed seeing his perspective on events also described by Sarah, as well as his insights into her life and character.
As I said earlier, I’m not entirely sure I’d class the novel as a ‘thriller’. Whilst the plot is richly layered and there are plenty of secrets to be uncovered, for me the book is more of a mystery, albeit one with a page-turning pace, a compelling female protagonist, and some very contemporary themes. This suited me down to the ground but contemporary or domestic thriller fans seeking high-octane twists and turns might be disappointed if they go in expecting that from Sight Unseen, which instead offers a blend of carefully uncovered historical secrets, present-day problem-solving, and gradual character development. Fans of mystery-thrillers are, however, sure to find much to enjoy and I for one am looking forward to seeing what’s in store for Sarah in the next book!
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Love Books Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour! The tour continues until 18 August 2020 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.