With the publication of her second novel, The Ninth Child, Sally Magnusson shows once again her skill at crafting thought-provoking fiction based loosely around fascinating yet little-known historical facts. Her debut novel, The Sealwoman’s Gift, shone a light on an episode of Icelandic history when pirates raided the coastline and abducted 400 individuals, forcing them into slavery in Algiers. Her latest book, The Ninth Child, is set much closer to home. Opening in Glasgow in 1856, when the city lived in fear of another devastating cholera outbreak, the reader is introduced to the protagonist, Isabel Aird, a doctor’s wife who has suffered multiple miscarriages and is struggling to find her place within genteel society. When her husband offers his services in support of an ambitious new engineering project to build a series of tunnels and aqueducts from Loch Katrine in the Trossachs to supply the city with fresh water, Isabel sees a move to the mountains as an opportunity for adventure.
Location plays a key part in The Ninth Child, particularly the superstition and myths surrounding Doon Hill and Loch Chon. It is there Isabel meets the enigmatic Reverend Robert Kirke and the novel veers from the historical into magical realism. Based on a real life minister and folklorist (Robert Kirk) enchanted by the ‘faerie’ underworld, Kirke befriends Isabel, although all is not as it seems. Both have suffered loss and turn to local folklore to supply answers as superstition swirls that faerie forces are being unleashed as the mountainside is blasted apart.
Magnusson cleverly juxtaposes Isabel’s new life in the mountains, enjoying both sunshine and shadows and where anything seems possible, with the harsh reality of the dirt, sweat and danger of Victorian industry booming around her.
A further strength of Magnusson’s writing is the use of three very distinct voices – that of Isabel, Kirke and Isabel’s pragmatic maid, Kirsty. Her facts are well-researched and deftly woven; the reader’s interest in the real Reverend Robert Kirke is peeked and perhaps a little more space for his intriguing life would have provided a greater understanding of such a unique individual.
The Ninth Child is a highly original exploration of fact meeting folklore, sweeping the reader to a time when the possibility of meeting ‘faerie’ folk was real. It is magical realism blended beautifully with historical fact.