It was Christmas and Kinlocochbervie had a festive atmosphere about it. Decorations and fir trees decked out with tinsel stood in windows, lighting the dull afternoon with flashes of cheerful Technicolor brilliance, and the door to the Compass was adorned with a massive wreath. The smell of burning wood was in the air, as the wind tugged at the ribbons of smoke issuing from most of the chimneys. I walked past the Compass, and my nose was assaulted by the wonderful odor of roasting chestnuts, something I had not smelled in years. It conjured many images of Christmases past, and as I walked to the first of the shops on my list, I was whistling a merry carol. — Richard Brennan in Swim the Moon
Paul Brandon’s Swim the Moon was good enough to keep me turning page after page. It’s both a great mystery — yes, a mystery — and incredibly well-written! This was Paul Brandon’s first novel with being second being The Wild Reel.
Six years ago fiddler Richard Brennan left Scotland for Australia following the death of his wife by drowning; he could not cope with the memories and his overwhelming grief. Now, he takes a nonstop trip from his new home in Australia back to Scotland to attend his father’s funeral. By a not-so-nice coincidence, his father, an architect, drowned just like Richard’s wife did. What Richard doesn’t (yet) know is that drownings are very, very common in his family over the past several centuries.
To escape his sorrow, and his decided puzzlement about being back in Scotland, Richard plays his fiddle in gigs in the nearby pubs. (It seems that Richard has played with many well-known Celtic bands.) Still feeling very alone, he begins to believe that he is losing his mind when a woman named Ailish appears ecstatically dancing and singing under the seaside moonlight.
Richard joins her music with his fiddle, but soon loses his heart and soul to this woman who has flaming red hair, always wears the same dress, and goes barefoot in the deep of winter. Need I mention that she speaks only a long-forgotten form of Scots Gaelic? (She learns English rather quickly.) And that she appears to come from the sea? Yes, she’s one of the seal folk, a Selkie.
What Brandon has written is fantasy that has vivid imagery very rarely seen in a novel, whether he is describing the descriptions of Ailish, Richard playing music, or life along the northern Scottish coast. Richard is believable as an individual nearly driven mad by the memories of what was and visions of what might be. The only minor complaint I have is that the dialogue in Swim the Moon/cite> can be rather, err, awkward at times. And Richard is somewhat oblivious to the true nature of our country lass — not surprising given the truly great sex they have!
Minor quibbles aside, this is a truly great novel, and one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s safe to say that the author, like his fellow Celtic musician Charles de Lint, is well-versed in every aspect of being a musician.