“Well researched historical fiction” – The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

At the centre of Sally Magnusson’s second novel lies one of the greatest feats in civil engineering during the Victorian age. The construction of an ingenious scheme of pipes, aqueducts and sluices from Loch Katrine in the Trossachs all the way to Glasgow to supply clean water from the Scottish Highlands to the poor and desolate living in squalid conditions in the city’s tenement blocks. Its aim is the prevention of further cholera outbreaks like those of 1832 and 1848 which killed around ten thousand people in Glasgow alone and many more beyond it.

The Ninth Child is a tale of well researched historical fiction filled with numerous famous figures, such as William John Macquorn Rankine (1820 – 1872), a civil and mechanical engineer with a multitude of other talents, ranging from mathematician to musician, composer and poet. Other characters include Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. Also making brief appearances are Joseph Lister (1827 – 1912), a primary pioneer in the development of antiseptic surgery, and his wife, Agnes.

The chief historical figure in the novel, however, is Robert Kirke (1644 – 1692), a Scottish minister and folklorist who lived 160 years earlier and died suddenly in mysterious circumstances. It is around his reappearance that Magnusson is at her most creative, employing fantasy, legend and the supernatural to tell her story. Less obviously, to some readers perhaps, Magnusson echoes some of the symbolism Shakespeare used in his tragic comedy, Cymbeline. Brief quotes from the play preface each of the novel’s five parts, such as “Nothing ill come near thee” and “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun”.

Dr. Alexander Aird is the medical man employed by the Corporation of Glasgow Waterworks to look after the health of the engineers and navvies blasting through the rock of the mountains around Loch Katrine, laying pipes and building aqueducts and operating platforms. His young wife, Isabel, has reluctantly left behind her bland, but predictable life preoccupied by fashion and gossip. Still grieving for the seven babies she has miscarried, she is now pregnant with her eighth child. Feeling restless in her new surroundings she takes to roaming the area around Loch Katrine and nearby Loch Chon. Finding comfort in remembering her stillborn infants, Magnusson writes of Isabel:

“Here she found herself able to lay her small ghosts to rest. Sometimes she saw them in the haze on the water, and would count them, one to seven. There’s Johnnie, she would think, and here comes Sarah, named for her mother, though she never told her. After those two there were no more names. Sometimes the children could be found budding from a young tree or blethering to one another in the burn’s rush.”

When she first meets Robert Kirke Isabel is frightened and almost repelled by the shabby appearance of this tall man who asks very direct questions. Soon, however, she feels herself drawn to the sense of mystery which seems to surround him. She even comes to enjoy his company, telling herself there is no harm in it. Here is one such instance:

“It was with little surprise and even a flutter of pleasure that on a walk along the banks of Loch Chon, Isabel found herself keeping company with Robert Kirke.

‘How very nice to see you, Mr. Kirke’, she said cheerfully as he slackened his long-limbed pace to match hers. He looked, she thought, pleased to see her too.

‘If it’s no trouble to you, madam, I’d be glad to bide by you as ye walk.’ His pleasant rumble of a voice was as soothing as she remembered.”

Kirsty is the wife of James McEchern. They live in a small hovel dug into the hillside above the Airds’ home. After their initial tentative social interaction Kirsty eventually comes to work for the couple, keeping house for them and becoming a trusted confidant. She delivers both Isabel’s eighth stillborn child and, close to the end of the novel, Isabel’s ninth infant, a son who, we discover, in the book’s unexpected, thrilling and positively breathtaking race to conclusion, has reached adulthood.

The two main narrative voices are those of Isabel and Kirsty with brief chapters, sometimes less than a page or even only a few lines, in which Robert Kirke explains to the reader his background or the faery voices he hears in his head. He believes that there is something that he must do which will release him from the faery spell he is under and, during another of their walks, he preys on Isabel’s good nature. He explains to her:

“’Three years ago I was released from faery body, but they bargained for my soul. To be free of faery and die like any other man, I am to fulfil a commission. And to do that, to join Isabel, my dear departed wife, in eternal union, I will need the help of another.’

She reaches for my hand, which she clasps most fervently in both her ain.

‘And it is from me you seek help? Is that why you have sought out my company these many months and years past?’”

There is one subplot, which sadly, does nothing to enhance the novel. These are several shortish chapters portraying Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort holidaying first, in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and, secondly, on the Balmoral Estate in the Scottish Highlands. The only connection to the rest of the story, we eventually discover, is that on completion of the new waterworks the royal couple attend the opening on a very wet day in October 1859. The event could easily have been related in two or three pages as part of the one relevant chapter without making the novel in any way poorer. This is the description of how many of the guests arrived for the great event:

“Ahead weaved the line of improvised transport and behind them trudged the unfortunates who had missed out. From time to time other travellers, those who had bivouacked in the hills perhaps or happened upon some other devious route to Loch Katrine, staggered onto the road to join them.Together this bedraggled stream of humanity wound along the high passes of the heath with but one hope in every breast: that they might arrive in time to join their Queen in celebrating the copious blessings of Highland water.”

The book’s ending is one of the cleverest and most satisfying I have ever read in the way it ties up loose ends. Despite its potentially intriguing plot, Magnusson’s rather dry writing style means it can occasionally border on, perhaps not quite boring, but certainly on the slightly dull side. This can make it a little harder to keep going than maybe it ought to be.

Any Cop?:  A bit of a struggle at times, but worth persevering just for the novel’s well-executed ending.

 

Carola Huttmann

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