It’s hard to believe it’s only been two years since I discovered Mary Stewart! I read the brilliant Nine Coaches Waiting in November 2011 and since then I’ve read seven of her other books and loved most of them. When I first started to think about what I wanted to read for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week, Stormy Petrel wasn’t a title that came to mind, but I decided to see what the library could offer and this was the only one they had that I hadn’t already read. Knowing that this was one of her later books (published in 1991) and not considered to be one of her best, I was careful not to go into it with my expectations too high.
Stormy Petrel is narrated by Rose Fenemore, a poet and writer of science fiction novels. Due to her busy schedule as a tutor of English at Cambridge, Rose doesn’t have as much time to write as she would like, so she decides to take a break and spend two weeks at a cottage on the Hebridean island of Moila. Her brother Crispin, a doctor, agrees to meet her there as he is a keen wildlife photographer and is looking forward to taking pictures of the rare birds that nest on the island.
Rose arrives several days before Crispin and begins to settle into the cottage, but on her first night the island is hit by a storm and she wakes up to find a strange man in the kitchen. His name is Ewen Mackay and he tells her that his foster parents used to live in the cottage and he has come to visit them unaware that they had moved away. As Rose listens to Ewen’s story, another man arrives at the door. Introducing himself as John Parsons, he explains that he was camping and his tent has blown away in the wind so he is looking for somewhere to shelter from the storm. Rose lets them both stay until morning but over the next few days she learns more about both men and discovers that neither of them has been completely honest with her. How can she decide who to trust?
This was not one of my favourite Mary Stewart books and slightly disappointing compared with some of her earlier ones, but I still liked it and rate it above Rose Cottage, which was her final book, published several years after this one (I didn’t dislike Rose Cottage either, but it was a bit too gentle for me). The problem with Stormy Petrel is that as a ‘romantic suspense’ novel the romance is only hinted at and there’s not much suspense either. After one or two surprises near the beginning of the book the rest of the story is predictable, the villain is not really all that villainous and I never felt that Rose was in any danger.
Something I did love about this book was the wonderful Scottish setting. Every time I read a Mary Stewart novel I find myself enthusing over her beautiful descriptions of the area in which the story is set, and Stormy Petrel is no exception:
The Isle of Moila is the first stop past Tobermory. It is not a large island, perhaps nine miles by five, with formidable cliffs to the north-west that face the weather like the prow of a ship. From the steep sheep-bitten turf at the head of these cliffs the land slopes gently down towards a glen where the island’s only sizeable river runs seawards out of a loch cupped in a shallow basin among low hills. Presumably the loch – lochan, rather, for it is not large – is fed by springs eternally replenished by the rain, for nothing flows into it except small burns seeping through rush and bog myrtle, which spread after storms into sodden quagmires of moss. But the outflow is perennially full, white water pouring down to where the moor cleaves open and lets it fall to the sea.
Moila doesn’t really exist but the descriptions are so vivid I’m sure it must be based on a real Hebridean island. Stewart’s love for the landscape and the wildlife are obvious and throughout the story she explores the importance of preserving the beauty of nature. If you don’t already know what the title ‘stormy petrel’ refers to, she explains that too.
At just over 200 pages, this is a quick read and perfect for those times when you just want to relax with a book that’s not too complex or demanding!