RogerBW's Blog

The Wind Off the Small Isles, Mary Stewart 13 December 2018

1968 thriller, short novella. The children's novelist Cora Gresham has decided to set her latest pirate story in Lanzarote, so she'll have to visit, and her secretary Perdita West has to make the arrangements. But the house that would be the ideal writing retreat is already occupied.

It's an odd book, the shortest thing I've read of Stewart's, and so everything has to happen much faster than usual. There are only four characters (Cora, Perdita, the playwright James Blair who's got the house, and his secretary/apprentice (and Cora's son) Michael); and there is no villain among them – the first time Stewart has done this. There is indeed something like love at first sight, or at the very least an immediate acknowledgement of the attraction between Perdita and Michael and no reason that they shouldn't do something about it.

The action, such as it is, is a single incident of peril, and while there's some tension the resolution is relatively straight-forward. A prologue in 1879 sets up but doesn't resolve a situation, and the modern section of the book is the discovery of what happened.

But there are some fascinating side notes, like the author's view of herself:

Mrs Gresham, who is nothing if not clear-sighted, once called herself 'the clown with the normal clown's urge to play Hamlet', but this didn't seem to me to fill the bill. I called it her 'Sullivan act' – a finished master of light music breaking his heart to be Verdi. I said: 'I wish you'd stop tormenting yourself because you're not Graham Greene or James Blair or Robert Bolt or someone. The number of people who'd miss "Coralie Gray" if you stopped writing could be laid end to end—'

Of course I can't say that Mary Stewart herself felt this way (and she didn't have an ongoing series character), but it does seem at least a plausible sketch of a feeling she might have had.

It's a very dense book, and while one might prefer it at greater length, the story as it stands works remarkably well in a form with which Stewart had little practice. And in spite of all that, there are still the lovely landscapes that Stewart always manages to work in, and a description of Lanzarote just before the mass tourist trade found it.

Stewart had been producing roughly a book each year or two up to this point, but it would be eight years before her next romantic suspense novel; she diverged into her Arthurian trilogy, and two books for children.

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