David Graham may be a student in Illinois and Elspeth Dunn a fisherman’s wife in Skye but they are “just an envelope away”from each other.
Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Hutchinson, 287pp, £12.99
When the letters between them start in 1912, they have never met but Davey (as he becomes) writes to compliment Elspeth (or Sue as he chooses to call her) on her published poetry which he has stumbled across at college. They fall in love by correspondence, sharing their wildest hopes, favourite books and deepest secrets. This novel takes the form of their letters – although as the story unfolds, they are not the only letter writers involved.
The relationship is complicated by more than distance. Elspeth has never set foot beyond Skye because she fears sailing. She is married and a little older. David is under intense pressure from his father to follow his footsteps into medicine, feels he is unworthy of both his college and family, and responds with reckless student behaviour – about which he confides in Elspeth. Then the First World War breaks out. The war hardly impacts on Skye except that Elspeth’s husband joins up unexpectedly. Why would he do that?
While Woodrow Wilson makes his mind up whether or not to commit the United States to fighting, David sees volunteering to drive ambulances in France as a way of avoiding his father’s plans and finding adventure at the same time. These events provide a context for the letters but also a sensitive insight into the effect of war on the lives of individuals living so far apart. Both feel free to share their worries, insecurities and ambitions and uncertainty about the future makes them less reticent about expressing their feelings.
The ill-starred transatlantic love affair progresses through the First World War and the outbreak of the Second World War brings back memories to Elspeth which lead her to revisit her past. By this time her daughter, Margaret, is of an age to want to know why Elspeth left Skye to settle in Edinburgh and why she never hears about her father or sees her relatives.
That leads to a second set of letters which are interwoven with the ones exchanged by Davey and Elspeth (it is a good idea to check the timeline as you read them). These are between Margaret and boyfriend Paul, an RAF pilot on whom she unloads her anxiety about her mother, who has suddenly disappeared from her Edinburgh home, taking a pile of letters with her. Margaret also attempts to make contact with her relatives, including her grandmother in Skye who, unknown to her, has been keeping track of her since childhood. Despite Elspeth’s best efforts, history is close to repeating itself because Paul started as a penfriend of Margaret’s but progressed to become her fiancé. When Margaret goes to his RAF base in Plymouth, Elspeth, remembering her own experience of love in wartime, urges her to “come home before this becomes anything serious”.
Elspeth’s disappearance is caused by Margaret’s interest in her family, the reminders of war and by re-reading the letters, all of which she has kept. When she fled Edinburgh, she headed for the Langham Hotel in London, where she had met David in 1915 when he was on leave from the trenches. From there we have another set of letters as Elspeth tries to find out what happened to him after they broke off their relationship to give her marriage another chance. Her husband had been declared missing and presumed dead but turned up in a prisoner of war camp. In an earlier letter, David referred to “the tangled mess that is our future”. The novel charts that tangled mess.
This is a gentle love story. Telling it through letters makes the characters more real and their decisions more immediate, involving the reader even more than a straightforward narrative might have done.
Jessica Brockmole now lives in Indiana but spent several years in Scotland and remembers the difficulties of maintaining a relationship at a distance. The idea for the book occurred to her on a drive from Skye to Edinburgh. It is a familiar enough love story, but one given depth and richness by letters that speak straight from the heart.
Jessica Brockmole is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 26 August