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by Carole Johnstone
Scribner, January 2023
338 pages
ISBN: 1982199679

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This book deserves more than the maximum number of stars of any rating system. I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it since I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep if I left it open-ended, and then I wasn't able to sleep anyway because I couldn't stop reflecting with awe upon the way Johnstone accomplished so much with the book.

Following up her 2021 debut novel, MIRRORLAND, the author proves that the amazing writing in that somewhat claustrophobic novel was not a fluke. THE BLACKHOUSE has an insular island setting, but the expansive openness of the land and sea that surround its characters is far different from the tight physical landscape in which her earlier characters moved. One thing that has not changed, however, is the astonishing evocation of massive storms and their consequences, whether those storms are physical or emotional. Maggie MacKay, troubled by her mother's death and memories of an earlier visit to an island in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, plagued by a bi-polar disorder, retreats to that island to make sense of her past. She rents a cottage, the eponymous blackhouse, where she cannot escape the ghosts of that past. She had visited as a very young child after insisting that she was the reincarnation of a troubled man from that island, setting in motion events that will forever change the island dwellers and Maggie, herself.

As she makes both friends and enemies amongst the inhabitants of the village, creepy events at the blackhouse have her doubting her tenuous sanity. Her story is given in chapters interspersed with the story of the man of whom she claimed to be the reincarnation, a man equally on the edge of sanity. Maggie and her predecessor, Robert, are harassed by evil, both carnate and incarnate. The book has an uninterrupted gothic, menacing atmosphere that is at its most devastating during the many raging storms.

There are so many different themes that play out over the course of Maggie's attempt to understand the past, including mental illness, love between men and women and between parent and child, the effects of living with guilt, the ability to forgive or deny forgiveness, the effects of isolation and insularity in small towns cut-off from outside help, childhood neglect and abuse, and, of course, reincarnation.

Johnstone's writing is exquisitely beautiful, bringing life to wild storms, rolling flower-strewn meadows, and everything in between with equal skill. Maggie, Robert, and the villagers are full blown characters,

developed over the course of the book as Maggie's understanding is fleshed out. But honestly, the eerie atmosphere of the island is one of the best things about the book. Maggie spends a good portion of the tale frightened, and so does the reader. In spite of it all, in the end there is a resolution that ties together the many details and gives us hope.

I will be watching and waiting for Johnstone's next novel, wondering what world she will create to both scare and reassure us.

Sharon Mensing, retired educational leader, lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors in Arizona.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, December 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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