Scotland, 1949: Caroline Gillan and her new husband Alasdair have moved back to Kelly Castle, his dilapidated family estate in the middle of nowhere. Stuck caring for their tiny baby, and trying to find her way with an opinionated mother-in-law, Caroline feels adrift, alone and unwelcome.
But when she is tasked with sorting out the family archives, Caroline discovers a century-old mystery that sparks her back to life. There is one Gillan bride who is completely unknown – no photos exist, no records have been kept – the only thing that is certain is that she had a legitimate child. Alasdair’s grandmother.
As Caroline uncovers a strange story that stretches as far as the Arctic circle, her desire to find the truth turns obsessive. And when a body is found in the grounds of the castle, her hunt becomes more than just a case of curiosity. What happened all those years ago? Who was the bride? And who is the body…?
Part love story, part mystery, and part historical drama, Elisabeth Gifford’s latest novel, A Woman Made of Snow, is certainly endeavouring to tick a lot of boxes – many of them pure Shelf of Unread catnip! And with a side order of Victorian arctic exploration thrown into that heady mix, I was delighted to have the opportunity to be on the blog tour for this captivating novel.
Switching between two timelines, A Woman Made of Snow is the story of several generations of Gillan women. The latest Gillan wife, Caro, is struggling to find her place amidst new husband Alasdair’s ancestral home, Kelly Castle. As one of the first women to graduate from her college at Cambridge, Caro had expected to spend her life researching and lecturing. Instead she finds herself struggling with new motherhood under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law, Martha.
When Martha unexpectedly offers Caro the opportunity to research the history of Kelly Castle, she jumps at the opportunity to claw back a few hours of her old life. Her investigations turn up a curious gap in the archives: a previous Gillan bride – Alasdair’s great-grandmother – who appears to have been erased from the family history. When building work uncovers a woman’s body in the grounds of the castle, Caro cannot help but wonder whether there is any connection with her missing Gillan wife. And when she uncovers the long-lost diary of Oliver Gillan’s voyage to the Arctic in 1882, it soon becomes clear that the Gillan’s family history – and Kelly Castle – may be hiding a murderous secret.
There were so many points when A Woman Made of Snow reminded me of To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey’s captivating novel about the exploration of Alaska that I read and reviewed earlier this year. Elisabeth Gifford has the same ability as Ivey to perfectly capture a sense of wonder involved in exploration and the sense of grandeur within the Arctic landscape – and has also written a poignant and touching love story at the beating heart of her book.
Some elements of this novel were, for me, less successful however. For a relatively slender novel (287 pages), A Woman Made of Snow packs in a LOT of plot. Whilst this is definitely not a bad thing per se – it definitely kept the pages turning! – there are several key characters within both the timelines, as well as several subplots that I felt some were in need of more room to breath. One subplot, which revolves around a potential rival for Alasdair’s affections, seemed full of dramatic potential but, sadly, seemed to have dwindled out to serve very little purpose by the end of the novel.
I also felt that the tension between Caro and Martha – and the attempts made to liken this to events within the past timeline – was a little forced at times. Both Caro and Martha are very likeable characters and, to me at least, seemed to act in a perfectly friendly and respectful manner to each other throughout. Whilst I understand that Elisabeth Gifford was trying to convey the uneasy but barely perceptible tensions that can sometimes arise between new wife and mother-in-law, I felt that this was sometimes made into a bigger plot element than their relatively minor disagreements really warranted.
That said, Caro’s frustration at her own loss of identity is brilliantly conveyed and I really empathised with the way she is torn between her love for her new family – and her new role as wife and mother – and her frustration at the postponement of her academic career, and the abandonment of her independent life with Alasdair in London.
Saying to much about Oliver’s plotline would be to risk spoilers – and given that there is a really compelling mystery plot running throughout the book, that would be a great shame – however I will say that I found the sections set aboard the whaling ship Narwhal to be amongst the most compelling sections of the novel. Elisabeth Gifford has clearly done her research into both the place and the period and I felt that the Narwhal and her crew really came alive on the page – as did the lives and customs of the Inuit people they encounter on their journey.
I also found Oliver’s mother, Sylvia, to be a really arresting character – albeit a truly awful one. Again, I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers but I can safely say that I think Sylvia is one of the most reprehensible characters I’ve met on the page in recent years! Despite this, Gifford has made her a woman I almost loved to hate, fleshing out her background and mental state so that I could understand some of the reasoning behind her abhorrent behaviour – even if I didn’t empathise with that reasoning in any way.
Overall, A Woman Made of Snow made for a dynamic, emotive, and propulsive read that was packed full of family drama. With a touching love story and some well-drawn characters, it was a quick and compelling novel that, despite some minor niggles, kept me reading right through to the end! With its immersive period detail, dual timeline mystery, and heartfelt, poignant storyline, A Woman Made of Snow is sure to appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah, Hazel Gaynor, Kate Morton, and Rachel Hore.
A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford is published by Corvus/Atlantic Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.
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 and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 22 October 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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