A marsh is as good as a moor if you’re looking for gothic atmosphere, maybe even better. It’s land and water, sand and sea, a porous, floating world that shifts with the tides.
An English coastal marsh serves as both setting and metaphor in Elizabeth Brooks’ Brontë-esque first novel, “The Orphan of Salt Winds.” December of 2015 finds Virginia Wrathmell looking out at the desolate landscape and planning the end of her 86 years. On New Year’s Eve, she will walk out the door of the old house called Salt Winds for the last time and disappear into the marsh.
Flash back to December of 1939 and Virginia’s first glimpse of Salt Winds. A 10-year-old orphan, she clings tightly to the hand of her new adoptive father, Clem Wrathmell, an author of wildlife books. He tells her that the whistling sound she hears is the cry of the curlew and that the marsh “is good for birds but bad news for people.” Theirs is an immediate bond, but Virginia finds her pretty new mother Lorna more restrained, and she senses tensions in the Wrathmells’ marriage. A neighboring widower, Max Deering, appears to be the source.
The narrative continues on this dual track, with chapters alternating between 2015 and the events of 1939-41. With portents aplenty, Brooks builds suspense in both eras. Virginia, old and frail, sifts through photos and memories, but her plans change when a runaway girl, Sophie, turns up at her door. Sophie’s connection to Virginia’s past is eventually revealed, as is a long-ago tragedy involving a German fighter plane’s plunge into the marsh and an ensuing betrayal. The attic holds secrets. A shotgun introduced early in the story reappears.
These mysteries are involving enough, although somewhat predictable. What’s missing, though, are those 75 years between Virginia’s coming of age and her actual old age. A few scattered references to career and travel don’t give a true sense of a life fully lived. As it is, young, naive Virginia’s story is more interesting than that of the bitter octogenarian who wavers between wanting revenge and making amends. Other characters are enigmatic rather than complicated, while smarmy, mustachioed Deering is a cartoon villain.
What Brooks gets right is her evocation of time and place, “the weave and whirl of tide and sand, foam and wind, solidity and void.” It reminds me of another haunting wartime tale belonging to the marsh. Surely, it’s no accident that Virginia chooses as her 12th birthday present a copy of Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose.”
Nancy Pate is a writer and reviewer in Orlando, Fla., who counts “Jane Eyre’’ and “Rebecca’’ among her favorite books.
The Orphan of Salt Winds
By: Elizabeth Brooks.
Publisher: Tin House, 293 pages, $15.95.