I love a story that has an element of historical mystery to it, whether it’s a major or minor component, and so I was instantly intrigued by Sarah Painter’s latest novel, Beneath the Water, and hit the request button on Netgalley without hesitation.
Needing to escape the house that she shared with her (now ex) fiancé, Stella visits her friend Caitlin in Arisaig, Scotland, and is immediately taken with the area with its rugged beauty and harsh weather, and she is thrilled to land a job at Munro House working as a personal assistant to the intensely private Jamie Munro which means that she can prolong her stay.
Jamie quickly proves to be anything other than a regular boss, and some of the demands that he makes are a little unusual, but nothing that Stella can’t handle, and nothing untoward. And Jamie is an intriguing character – supposedly writing his next book, but easily distracted by anything and everything, his latest project is rooting out the secrets of the family home that he has recently returned to.
In going through old documents, Stella stumbles across a set of letters written in the mid-nineteenth century from Jessie Lockwood to her sister, Mary. Jessie was newly married at the time, and had moved to her husband’s residence in Edinburgh. The letters become increasingly fraught as Stella reads on, however, and both Stella and Jamie are keen to understand what happened to Jessie, and how she is linked to Munro House.
Stella is a wonderful character, and I warmed to her straightaway, even though I did occasionally want to give her a (gentle) shake. Her breakup with Ben (his doing, not hers) left her feeling distraught, and she’s feeling quite sorry for herself at the outset of the novel. Whilst this makes her seem fragile and vulnerable, there is also something extremely resilient about Stella, and I liked this contrast in her character. Stella has suffered with a heart condition throughout her life and wasn’t expected to make it as far as adulthood, and even though it wasn’t entirely within her gift to control, I think that this hints at a perseverance in her character.
Needing to get away from it all, Stella visits her friend Caitlin in Arisaig, a small community on the west coast of Scotland. Painter perfectly captures the small community vibe where everyone knows everyone else, and where very little remains a secret, and Stella is soon subjected to (and the subject of) the local gossip, much of which focuses on Jamie Munro – her new employer – and his family. Jamie is extremely private, and even makes Stella sign a non-disclosure agreement when she begins working for him. Having spent much of his time at boarding school and more latterly abroad, the locals don’t know him well, but are quick to judge him by the sins of his father, who had quite the reputation.
There are a few mysteries to solve in the novel – including the letters from Jessie Lockwood and their connection to Munro House. I like this element of the novel, and I liked the way in which the letters were distributed throughout the novel in such a way as to tease the reader – I had to keep reading just to find out what happened to Jessie! Whilst I did find out her fate, I don’t think that the connection between the Lockwoods and the Munro family was answered in full – there is speculation, but I don’t believe that it was confirmed, although it’s possible that I missed it, and I would have liked a little more focus on this aspect of the story, although this is a purely personal preference.
I’ve been deliberately light on plot detail, as it’s difficult to talk about this novel without giving too much away, but Beneath the Water combines the historical mystery with some slightly more modern family secrets, with a little romance thrown in for good measure. There were a couple of elements to the story that I wasn’t wholly convinced by, but overall this was an easy and enjoyable read.
Beneath the Water will be published on 8 February by Lake Union Publishing. Many thanks to the publisher and Emma Finnigan for allowing me to read and review this title via Netgalley.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐