Friday, 8 January 2016

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, by Kirsty Wark

This is a novel by Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark. It concerns the eponymous Elizabeth, who leaves her house on the Isle of Arran to a stranger; a woman she had glimpsed many years before, pushing her daughter's pushchair along the road outside. This woman, Anna Morrison, had fallen in love with the house and written to Elizabeth asking her to get in touch if she ever thought of selling it. Long afterwards, Elizabeth, apparently on a whim, and without telling anyone other than a lawyer of her decision, decides to bequeath the house to Anna.

By now, Anna has dementia and it falls to her daughter Martha to take on the house. Martha, a globe-trotting journalist, is ready for a change in her way of life, and she goes to the island, which she remembers and loves from holidays with her mother, to whom she is extremely close. She becomes fascinated by what she finds out about Elizabeth, and she finds herself becoming part of the life of the island - and in particular, of the lives of Catriona, who runs a hotel, her brother Niall, a botanist/horticulturalist, and Saul, an unconventional American Buddhist. Saul and Niall had both been very fond of Elizabeth in her later years.

The story is told in two interweaving narratives. Elizabeth's story is told in the first person, and we eventually find out that she wrote it down at the end of her life. Martha's story is told in the third person, and it's less coherent and taut than that of Elizabeth, but still very readable.

There are some things that don't quite work. The motivation of some of the characters is a little hazy, and some things are set in motion which don't really develop, mostly to do with the character of Saul. And Susie, Anna's sister, veers about a bit - more than she's meant to, I think, in terms of her character and the plot. Everything falls into place for Martha a little too neatly. And I'm not absolutely sure about what is discovered at the end - I won't explain that, because it would spoil the story for you.

But all in all, I found it really captivating. The evocation of the place, of Arran, is just wonderful, as are the descriptions of the various gardens and houses. And the story of Elizabeth herself is hugely touching - you so long for her to be happy. And in fact she does have spells of extreme happiness, and you see that although she has what might be judged to be a quiet, uneventful life, it is nevertheless a fulfilled, creative, and largely contented one.

Incidentally, the way I came across it is quite odd. I teach a writing class, and one week some time ago, I chose a list of titles of books I knew nothing about, and asked each person to pick one and outline what they thought the plot might be. Heather chose this title, and she was so intrigued by it that she bought the book. It's now doing the rounds, and it was my turn yesterday. I had finished it by this afternoon, and it's quite long, so that probably tells you all you need to know about how much I enjoyed it.

Right, off to do those things which I ought to have done now - starting off with walking the dog...


  1. My sister lives on Arran.

    She, husband, the 2 Labradors and the Range Rover Discovery retired there some years ago.

    They fell in love with the place on holiday after holiday.

    I'm Scottish to the core. I don't over romanticise the place though. It's flipping cold up there, in a way that anyone who lives in places like Hampshire, Surrey, anywhere down South might hardly realize.

    Arran is milder due to it's location, sheltered from the Atlantic by Kintyre, and with the relative warmth of the Gulf Stream.

    As a kid, I became aware of Arran through living in Stranraer. In storms, the ferry returning from Ireland would often be unable to dock safely. The captain would attempt to anchor in Loch Ryan for the night. Due to events some years before, by about 10pm most of the town would know what was happening. If the storm was severe, as it often was, the ship would drag its anchor. The captain would then make for Arran, and shelter in Whiting Bay till the storm subsided.

    The one exception was when waves breached the rear vehicle doors. The captain attempted to turn for Arran, but realised that in doing so this would expose the damaged doors to even more of the storm. He decided to attempt to reach Ireland. The ship capsized and sank a few miles off the Irish coast. All the women and children perished. My family lived across the road from the captain's widow.

    Lot's, and lots of wood-burning stoves purchased on Arran after recent winter power-breaks.

    As said though, sister and husband seem to love it. The dugs certainly do. All those beaches and open spaces.

  2. That's interesting - and very sobering. Those poor people. I wonder what your sister would think of the book? Kirsty Wark obviously loves Arran and knows it well.