Book review: The Blackhouse
Author: Peter May
Publisher: Quercus (Pan Macmillian Aust)
PETER May’s chilling book had a big reputation even before it was published in English – first published in France, Scottish journalist and writer May’s adopted home, it won the prestigious Prix des Lecteurs (readers prize) and was described as a masterpiece by French national newspaper L’Humanite.
All the accolades are deserved. I can easily say The Blackhouse is the best book I’ve read all year.
On the surface it’s a crime story but The Blackhouse is oh so much more. It’s an intense, psychological drama that’s all about atmosphere and character, a book that clings to you long after you’ve put it down.
The story is set on the Isle of Lewis, a remote and stark place where secrets are hidden within the tight-knit community. When a man is brutally murdered, Detective Fin MacLeod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate whether it is linked to another killing. For Fin, it is a return home and a return to a past he doesn’t want to confront.
May alternates between Fin’s story now, told in the third person, and the story of his childhood, told in the first-person. Gradually the two stories come together in a shocking revelation that’s linked to the controversial, savage and ritualistic guga hunt, undertaken by the island’s men once a year.
May weaves a haunting story with a darkness that seems to mirror the darkness within us all. Although it begins much like any other procedural crime story, complete with autopsy details, it quickly becomes a study of tragedy, resentment and even redemption.
The author has the most tremendous sense of place – the book breathes the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. You feel its bleakness, its desolation and harsh beauty as the author stamps images in your mind and cuts out sharply formed characters who leap off the page. Fin MacLeod, in particular, is a complex man who gets sucked into a mire of jealously and must ultimately face a truth he’s long hidden.
May also makes the most wonderful use of language.
In short, he is a writer in control. With The Blackhouse, he has used that control to deliver a powerful, beautifully paced story that drips with malice.
The journey he takes us on ends too soon. But the good news is that The Blackhouse is to be the first book in a trilogy featuring Fin MacLeod.