As The Women Lay Dreaming by Donald S. Murray
Published By: Saraband
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
In the small hours of January 1st, 1919, the cruellest twist of fate changed at a stroke the lives of an entire community.
Tormod Morrison was there that terrible night. He was on board HMY Iolaire when it smashed into rocks and sank, killing some 200 servicemen on the very last leg of their long journey home from war. For Tormod a man unlike others, with artistry in his fingertips the disaster would mark him indelibly.
Two decades later, Alasdair and Rachel are sent to the windswept Isle of Lewis to live with Tormod in his traditional blackhouse home, a world away from the Glasgow of their earliest years. Their grandfather is kind, compassionate, but still deeply affected by the remarkable true story of the Iolaire shipwreck by the selfless heroism and desperate tragedy he witnessed.
A deeply moving novel about passion constrained, coping with loss and a changing world, As the Women Lay Dreaming explores how a single event can so dramatically impact communities, individuals and, indeed, our very souls.
What I Say:
“War is hearing other men scream and knowing you can do nothing to help them.”
Thank you to Saraband Books for my copy of As The Women Lay Dreaming in exchange for an honest review of the book.
As The Women Lay Dreaming tells the story of the Iolaire disaster that happened on January 1st 1919. Tomrod Morrison, a talented artist and thoughtful young man, was on the ship as it went down. On that night, more than 200 servicemen lost their lives. They were on their way home to their families, after having endured the horrors of war and were full of excitement and hope as to their future.
Tomrod was one of the lucky ones, he got to return to his family, but not to the life he wanted. The impact of the First World War on his community was massive, lives were lost, families were destroyed, and those who had survived the conflict returned to the Isle of Lewis changed men.
When two decades later, his son in law is unable to cope with looking after his children after the death of their mother, Alasdair and Rachel are sent to live with Tormod and his wife Catriona. From the moment they step off the ferry onto the island, they are forced to confront the fact that they are not only geographically miles away from what they know, but are isolated by the fact they don’t speak Gaelic, and are outsiders in a world that they didn’t want to come to in the first place. They struggle to fit in at school, and Rachel not only starts to run away, but also chooses not to speak. It is only the love and consistency of their Grandfather and Catriona that helps the children understand settle and appreciate what being part of a family means.
Our narrator is Alasdair himself, and the novel’s timeline moves between 1992, 1936, and 1918. Alasdair reads through Tomrod’s diaries from 1918 and starts to understand the true hopes and desires of his Grandad, which brings him closer to him. He also learns about what his Grandad and family was going through, and why he and his sister were sent to lived there in 1936.
What is so clever about this novel is that Tomrod’s experience of the Iolaire disaster comes right at the end of the book. This helps us understand Tomrod, that he had to sacrifice his dreams of becoming an artist in order to look after his family who had been devastated by the First World War. He had no choice but to be the dutiful son, to ensure that his family could survive.
However, this is not just a novel about one family. As The Women Lay Dreaming is an emotional exploration of the impact of war, and the aftermath of a massive disaster on a small, isolated island and its community.
The shifting of the timelines, the uncertainty of the future and the grief of the past, unsettle us as readers. We know that the Iolaire will smash into rocks and men will lose their lives, but we just don’t know when. This sense of unease is apparent for Tomrod and his family. He has been sent his Grandchildren, who not only have lost their mother but have had to deal with a drunk father incapable of looking after them. In turn, Tomrod has lost his first wife, and his artistic ability has had to be suppressed in order for him to maintain his own family and be what everyone expects as oppose to what he really wants.
When we finally reach the chapters which graphically details the Iolaire disaster, it is a beautifully written and heart rending depiction of the awful reality of being a part of and a helpless bystander to a horrific tragedy. Every line of these chapters is filled with the emotional impact of utter helplessness as Iolaire crashes on the rocks, and I felt that I had a moral duty to read and understand the choices the men had to make to survive. From the very first page, the entire time we are reading about life in Lewis, the visit of Alasdair and Rachel, the spectre of Iolaire is always in the background. The reality of what happened when it is revealed, is what makes us understand the enormity of the Iolaire tragedy.
The poetic and descriptive way in which Donald depicts Tomrod’s world and the Island itself, draws the reader in and serves to envelop them completely. The sense of geographical isolation, coupled with the fact that all the men are determined to return to the island, gave the novel a mystical quality. The fact the Iolaire disaster happened at night, and the scope of the disaster as many men managed to scramble out of the water and found themselves stranded along the coastline, was a brilliantly cinematic almost dream like scene . They are ordinary men trying to cope with the enormity of what has happened, what they have seen, and put that all aside to help rescue everyone else.
As The Women Lay Dreaming is a novel which at first may simply seem to the story of an island community dealing with a naval disaster. It would be extremely naive to think that this is all it is. In this novel, Donald S Murray has written a love story to the Isle of Lewis, an exploration of the impact of war, loss and grief on a family and their entire community. To be witness to this disaster changed Tomrod’s life for ever, and in retelling the story of Iolaire and the Isle of Lewis, Donald Murray has ensured that this tragedy is given the attention it truly deserves.
Donald S Murray – Photo by Sandie McIver
A son of the Hebrides, Donald S. Murray is a writer and poet whose work has been shortlisted for both the Saltire Literary Awards and the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award. His critically acclaimed books bring to life the culture and nature of the Scottish islands, and he appears regularly on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland.
Thank you to Saraband for my copy of As The Women Lay Dreaming.
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