Living in South Ayrshire for so many years, I had wanted to write something about the Tattie Howkers: the Irish agricultural workers who used to come to this coast and elsewhere in Scotland every year to help with the potato harvest. When, coincidentally, I came across an account of the Industrial Schools in Ireland and the cruelties imposed on children long after they had been dispensed with elsewhere, I had found the germ of my novel.
In present day Scotland, successful musician India Laurence travels back to the small island where she was born, in an attempt to unravel her late mother’s tragic love story. But when she is unexpectedly given a folio of her mother’s drawings, the mystery only deepens.
‘Most of Kirsty’s paintings were full of light, as vibrant as she had once been herself. But these were stark studies in black and white, light and shade, Gothic in their intensity. They were more like illustrations for a book, but what book could that possibly be? Staring at them, one after another, India had to suppress a shudder. There was something terrible about them.’
In 1960s Scotland, young Finn O’Malley travels from Ireland to help with the potato harvest on a remote island farm. He and Kirsty, the farmer’s red-headed grand-daughter, become close friends, and Finn finds a measure of kindness and concern instead of the cruelty he has known. But as time passes the threads that have bound these two friends so closely together begin to unravel. Only her ambitions as an artist can give Kirsty the fulfillment she seeks, but her work is tied up with her love for her home as much as for Finn, the mysterious Bird of Passage of the title, who comes and goes like the corncrake each summer. And Finn is irrevocably damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories slowly.
‘I was three-quarters of the way through this book … before it dawned on me that it was Wuthering Heights in modern dress. I was tipped off by a couple of sly and amusing references to twigs tapping on windows and ghosts, and by the hero disappearing for years and then returning a rich man. It’s not a re-telling, though – it’s a re-imagining. A dialogue with the older book, if you like. It asks, would the same story, the same deathless love, be possible in the modern age, and if so, how? I was convinced, moved and impressed. Whether you love Wuthering Heights or not, if you enjoy an involving, beautifully written book, you’ll enjoy Bird of Passage.’
Susan Price, Awfully Big Reviews