Originally published in 1933, Nancy Brysson Morrisons novel was adapted for the stage and radio; adopted by The Book Society - at the time this influential monthly book club attracted thousands of subscribers, its editions turned The Gowk Storm along with books like Du Mauriers Rebecca, Waughs Brideshead Revisited and Delafields Diary of a Provincial Lady into massive bestsellers. Nancy Brysson Morrison uses standard English in most of her novel but its peppered with expressive words and phrases taken from the Scottish vernacular; her elegant, poetic prose is packed with striking images and astute observations, her tone by turns sombre, passionate and gently comical. Although in many ways this is a familiar story, with echoes of The Go-Between and even Little Women, its marked out by the vivid depiction of Lisbet, as well as Morrisons accomplished lyrical style and the fascinating observational details that permeate her narrative.
By the time my copy of The Gowk Storm arrived, Id forgotten about Sinclair; by the novels end, Id remembered her. Morrisons prose style is gentler than Sinclairs, but I was left with the same feeling at the end of both novels, likely due to their themes more than to the depictions of the lives of three sisters of an authoritarian father whos a minister.
Our narrator is the youngest of the three, Lisbet, who over the course of the couple of years of the book's story grows from a girl only half comprehending her elder sisters' early forays into the world of romantic love, into a young woman on whom the two older girls come to depend for support. The date is unspecified, I believe, but the book was published in 1933 and it reads as if the story is set somewhere in the decade or two before that, at a time when young girls had more freedom than Austen's heroines, for example, but were still confined by lack of opportunity and girded round by social restrictions, breaches of which would inevitably lead to scandal and ruin. I mention Austen in my little introduction because the comparison was running in my head throughout most of my reading of the book. Like Austen, this is fundamentally a book about young women seeking the men they will eventually marry but, also like her, it's much more than that. It portrays the society of a particular place at a moment in time and does so brilliantly, showing the subtle social stratifications that limit the lives and suitable marriage prospects of these moderately privileged girls still further. The writing is superb and, to continue the Austen comparison a little further, the characterisation of these young girls is beautifully done. Although she is young during the events of the book, it is written as if by her older self looking back, giving her narration a feeling of more maturity and insight than her younger self may have had at the time. Although there are plenty of moments where we see the touching love and loyalty among the sisters, there is little of the wit and humour displayed in most of Austen's works. The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic, and deserves a much wider readership than it has.
As she sat at the fireplace, a ball of wool stuck with knitting-pins on her lap, she looked as though at any moment she might go up the chimney in a whiff of smoke, leaving behind only two wrinkled boots with their laces out." There's something about a sister- story. I noticed there were shadows in the pits where his eyes were, in the dent of his chin and the concaves of his nostrils." - and that's the end of the chapter. Maybe that's part of what I liked about the novel, the whole thing was a lot about people noticing or "seeing" things that are hidden, or leading somewhere.
As the three sisters break out from a strict home to wander on the hills and mix with locals, there is throughout an overlying sense of the supernatural.