This New Year’s day is the 100th anniversary of Britain’s worst peacetime maritime disaster since the Titanic. The Iolaire went down just metres off the coast of Lewis and Harris in the Hebrides resulting in over 200 men dying as their families waited to greet them for their first New Year since the ending of the first World War. Donald S Murray‘s novel combines fact with fiction, in telling the story of the families affected by the disaster that befell the naval yacht.
The novel follows three threads – the first from 1936 when readers are acquainted with young Alasdair in Glasgow, who, along with his sister, is sent to Lewis to stay with their grandparents after the death of their mother. The second thread is of grown-up Alasdair, who starts to piece together the past using his grandfather, Tormod Morrison’s journals. Like Marquez’s Macondo, Tormod’s Lewis takes on a larger-than-life shape, and through one family’s story of love and loss, brings to life the pain of a disaster. And then there is Tormod’s journey. The storytelling across generations is sometimes confusing and has a drifting, meandering quality to it. But it does show that inherently, families and their characteristics remain the same even through the passage of time.
Murray’s writing is atmospheric and evocative. And it adds a quality of endlessness to the pain, that travels through generations and in Alasdair’s unravelling of Tormod’s life is particularly striking. This isn’t the cheeriest of books to usher in the new year with, but it is of the moment and is a piece of masterful writing that deserves to be read and of a tragedy that deserves to be remembered.