The Watch House by Bernie McGill reviewed

The Watch House
Bernie McGill
Tinder Press
August 10, 2017

In the vein of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, THE TAILOR'S HOUSE by Bernie McGill is the story of the modern world arriving on Rathlin, a remote Irish island, at the very end of the nineteenth century, with dramatic consequences for a young woman named Nuala. As the twentieth century dawns on the island of Rathlin, a place ravaged by storms and haunted by past tragedies, Nuala Byrne is faced with a difficult decision. Abandoned by her family for the new world, she receives a proposal from the island's aging tailor. For the price of a roof over her head, she accepts. Meanwhile the island is alive with gossip about the strangers who have arrived from the mainland, armed with mysterious equipment which can reportedly steal a person's words and transmit them through thin air. When Nuala is sent to cook for these men - engineers, who have been sent to Rathlin by Marconi to conduct experiments in the use of wireless telegraphy - she encounters an Italian named Gabriel, who offers her the chance to equip herself with new skills and knowledge. As her friendship with Gabriel opens up horizons beyond the rocky and treacherous cliffs of her island home, Nuala begins to realise that her deal with the tailor was a bargain she should never have struck.

The start of The Watch House by Bernie McGill is wonderfully dark and bleak. It caught my interest immediately. Set mainly in 1898 & 1899 on Rathlin island in Ireland I found this book rather special. After the dark start the narrative goes back a year and we begin to learn about Nuala Byrne’s life. The story weaves the fact that Marconi used the island to test his wireless transmission in Morse from there with Nuala’s. Nuala’s family left Ireland for the new world and she is to join them later. However that falls through and she is left with few choices. When she has a proposal of marriage from “The Tailor” of the island she decides to accept.

I did find this quite a slow burn book to start with. The writing has a poetic lilt to it and the language and tone is unquestionably Irish and from an earlier time. There is quite a lot of descriptive writing here; it is great for giving a fullness to the setting and the people but maybe slows things down more than I would have really liked. It is not a book to be read fast nor can it be; it is one to savour. Once I understood that I settled back to enjoy the tale.

Now married Nuala spends some time at the Watch House where the test transmissions are taking place. She begins to understand something of the far wider world. Her character is one of the better characters I’ve read in quite some time. I was completely engaged with her and her story. Her life and feelings became clear to me and I understood and empathised. The ending of this book was fine for me – something I say quite rarely. All in all this is a powerful and moving story. I found it deeply satisfying as a read in some way I find hard to explain.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review