During the eighteenth century, when readers were still unsure whether or not the new genre of the novel was a legitimate literary form, epistolary novels were extremely well-received. Somehow, a collection of letters seemed less aggressively fictional, more like a psychological bridge between nonfiction and the imagination. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, published in 1748, tells the story of a young woman’s seduction and betrayal; Clarissa’s ‘letters’ cemented the popularity of the form. As time passed, however, the epistolary novel has fallen out of favor. Not so many authors write them anymore, and we read very few. Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye is a welcome exception to the rule.
Her novel centers on the correspondence between an isolated Scottish poet who lives on the Isle of Skye. A young man from Illinois, receiving a book of her poems from a friend, writes her a fan letter. She answers, and soon the two are writing back and forth across the ocean. As a reader might guess, the letters bring the two closer and closer, both psychologically and emotionally. They fall in love, but two things intervene. Elspeth is already married, and World War I has already begun. Fast forward.
A second correspondence between Elspeth’s daughter and her boyfriend is also a part of this story. For their generation, World War II is a major factor influencing their lives. Paul is an RAF aviator, while Margaret lives in Edinburgh with her mother, Elspeth, the poet from Skye. When a bomb falls near their home, Elspeth is deeply affected. Margaret finds her mother uninjured, but sitting on the floor, surrounded by yellowed letters from the past, with an odd distant look on her face. The next morning, Elspeth disappears. Where did she go? And why? Margaret writes regularly to Paul, outlining all her attempts to learn more about her mother’s mysterious past. “The first volume of my life is out of print,” Elspeth had always said. Margaret intends to open that closed book.
Thus Letters from Skye proceeds, alternating chapters of correspondence between Elspeth and David with chapters of correspondence between Margaret and Paul. Other letters and letter-writers occasionally appear. Margaret writes to other family members, inquiring about her mother’s history, while Elspeth writes to friends who might have known David during or after the war. Even though the reader understands more about the past than Margaret knows, the denouement of Elspeth and David’s relationship remains cloaked in shadows. We only learn what actually happened a generation earlier when Margaret unearths her mother’s secrets.
Letters from Skye is simultaneously charming and wistful, romantic and tragic, happy and sad. As the letters progress, what will transpire between Margaret and Paul becomes as compelling as what happened between Elspeth and David. For both generations, the relentless onslaught of war looms large. Brockmole handles the comparisons and contrasts with a deft hand. While the parallels are obvious, the reader never feels as if the two stories’ reflections are contrived.
I quite liked this novel, in part because I’ve always enjoyed the epistolary form and in part because Brockmole’s characters are unique. Yes, they are stereotypical of the woman left home to fret about the soldier and the man driven to prove his bravery on the front, but they don’t seem like stereotypes at all. Perhaps the two men’s voices are a bit too sensitive for male correspondents, but that’s a minor complaint. This is a book that will whole-heartedly appeal to women readers. And I loved it! – Ann Ronald