Happy Sunday fellow bookworms. For this week’s blog post, I will be reviewing The Watch House by Bernie McGill, a fellow Northern Irish writer. So before we get started on what I thought, let’s find out what the book is about:
‘There are messages in the air, a closeness like the kind that comes before a storm, a listening, a holding of breath.’ It is summer, 1898, on the small Irish island of Rathlin and the place is alive with gossip. A pair of strangers has arrived from the mainland, laden with mysterious radio equipment, and the islanders are full of dread. For native Nuala Byrne, abandoned by her family for the New World and trapped by a prudent marriage to the island’s ageing tailor, the prospects for adventure are bleak. But when she is sent to cook for Marconi’s men and is enlisted, by the Italian engineer Gabriel, as an apprentice operator, she becomes enthralled by the world of knowledge that he brings from beyond her own narrow horizons. As Nuala’s friendship with Gabriel deepens, she realises that her deal with the tailor was a bargain she should never have struck.
The Watch House is a gripping story about the power of words to connect us, and the power of suspicion to drive us apart.
Set on the small and isolated Island of Rathlin, not too far from where I type, the story centres around the real life use of the Island by the Italian inventor Marconi and his new wireless morse code technology. The main character, Nuala Byrne, is our guide for the island along with its suspicious and superstitious residents, who finds herself falling for the Italian engineer Gabriel, sent to set the equipment up on the Island.
This wouldn’t normally be the type of book I would pick up…I’m not a huge historical fiction fan, nor am I big into romance, but I’m very glad I did. Bernie is an incredible writer. She is a word smith, a poet who has such an artful way with language, giving every sentence an almost lyrical quality. There wasn’t a chapter without some beautiful or profound quote you would happily have embroidered on a pillow. She is the type of writer which makes me very jealous due to her uncanny ability with the written word.
The book is incredibly well researched, with every historical detail accurately depicted and every square inch of the island and its caves brought to life. I found myself genuinely interested in the Italian inventor Marconi and his Morse code technology to the point that I lost an hour googling him online. It even made me want to visit Rathin island, somewhere which despite its closeness, I have never had reason to visit. It is obvious to the reader, the time and effort Bernie put into writing this book and it is very much appreciated.
The characters themselves are incredibly real and believable. From the curious, adventure seeking Nuala to her vile, spinster sister in law Ginny, I found myself genuinely engrossed in their lives and individual stories. I enjoyed the switching of perspectives between these narrators, to see the world through their eyes and from their own perspectives- it really helps the reader connect with Nuala and to root for her happiness, no matter how futile our hopes for a happy ending appear.
The central themes of this book are well explored and carry as much importance and relevance now as they did a century ago. The theme of communication is explored deeply in the book and is just as relevant today in our world of ever evolving communication technology. The clash between the old and the new, the struggles of some to come to terms with sudden modernity is something else which we still see today, as many struggle to keep up with this constant evolution. Indeed, even the idea of the corruption and interception of communication is explored, with devastating consequences for the lead character. Whilst this book involves wireless morse code rather than the super computer I call my smart phone, the implications of messages being intercepted and corrupted, the power of communication and the benefits it can bring, reaches across time and raises the same questions and issues now as it did then.
Whilst I had some issues with the ending and the decisions made by certain characters, albeit with the best of intentions, I recommend this book to any fan of historical fiction. I would give it four stars out of five!