I admire those who follow their dreams. I have been writing fiction for over forty years now, and although I’ve had some success placing short pieces my novels haven’t found much interest. So when I see the published work of someone who obviously loves writing as much as Ailish Sinclair does, it warms my heart. Her debut novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, is the kind of historical fiction tinged with a little fantasy, all set in Scotland. Having spent three happy years in Scotland myself, I like to read native writers. One of the categories in this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge is a debut novel, so all these things came together in this one little book. There may be a little spoiler info below, so proceed with caution!
Sometimes I read a novel without knowing much about it in advance. That was the case with this one. I read Sinclair’s blog posts and appreciate the fact that she doesn’t compose long, rambling essays. Her posts often make me stop and think. Her novel follows a love story that turns into a witch-hunt. Unlike that claimed by those who have the whole world watching them, this was a real one. The historical notes tell a bit about the characters based on women actually tried in Scotland during those dark times. In fact, when one of my doctoral advisors gave my wife and me a walking tour of Edinburgh early on in our time there, he pointed out where the witch trials had taken place. Sinclair captures the rage and frustration of women who had no recourse once such accusations flew. A religion only too ready to believe the worst about people, women in particular, showed no mercy based on what was only hearsay and jealousy.
It’s difficult to imagine what life would have been like in such times. Castles and lairds make us think of fairy tales, but reality must’ve been somewhat harsher. It’s fun to pretend about witches around Halloween, but there’s a sadness that’s difficult to escape as an adult. That sadness is all the more profound for finding claims of witch-hunts on the lips of abusers and others who do their best to perpetuate inequality. They dishonor those who actually did die so that men like them could feel smug self-satisfaction in the past. The Mermaid and the Bear brought a number of these thoughts to mind. Our society has made some strides towards treating all people as human beings but we’re yet a long way from where we need to be. Books that remind us of that are always to be welcomed; dreams are worth pursuing.