Source: Competition Prize
Publication: 11 July 2019 from Polygon
A single phone call from halfway across the world is all it takes to bring her home . . . ‘Ellie, something bad has happened.’
Desperate to escape her ‘kid from the scrapyard’ reputation, Ellie Rook has forged a new life for herself abroad, but tragedy strikes when her mother, Imelda, falls from a notorious waterfall. Here, according to local legend, the warrior queen Finella jumped to her death after killing a king. In the wake of her mother’s disappearance, Ellie is forced to confront some disturbing truths about the family she left behind and the woman she has become.
Can a long-dead queen hold the key to Ellie’s survival? And how far will she go to right a wrong?
Sandra Ireland is carving out rather a nice niche for herself, taking some of the ancient folk tales of Scotland and turning them into contemporary allegorical stories, full of rich imagery and delicate, poetic accounts. I loved Bone Deep and The Unmaking of Ellie Rook is equally strong.
Ellie Rook is a young woman recently returned home from her travels abroad to her family’s scrapyard business in rural Aberdeenshire after a phone call tells her that her mother has gone missing. The Rook family is a closed one, distant from their neighbours. The patriarch, Lawler rules his household with a rod of iron and it was to escape this stifling, rigid, atmosphere that Ellie originally left home.
Ellie’s mother loved the woods and named her daughter after the huntress Finella, a huntress who, Ellie’s mum used to tell her, was strong and brave. Ellie was encouraged by her mum to believe that she could do anything; her namesake instilling into her the confidence that her father’s upbringing sought to quash.
It was Ellie’s mother who encouraged her to leave the nest and fly away, leaving her brother, River, behind with his parents. Now Ellie’s mother has disappeared, and the fear is that she has been claimed by the woods and the water she loved so much; that she has fallen off a cliff and been swept away in a death that echoes Finella’s end.
Returning home, Ellie finds that little has changed and that her father sees her return as only right, now she can take over the household’s domestic chores that her mother used to fulfill.
Coming home reawakens in Ellie the sense of aloneness and incipient violence that always lurked around the corner when she was growing up. Lawler carries that overweening arrogance that comes from being the master of his household where his word is law and nothing gets in his way. To add to that sense, Lawler employs a long time sidekick, Offshore Dave, whose job is to make sure that Lawler’s business is carried on without any outside interference. The Rook way is to have nothing to do with authorities and the disappearance of her mother will not change that.
Ireland ably creates a tense and dramatic scenario in which Ellie relives parts of her childhood while searching desperately for her mother and trying to make sense of the information she has been given. She sees her brother, River, becoming more like her father every day and fears for his future should that happen.
The reader is drawn into this family’s life and as observers, begins to divine what kind of life Ellie’s mother must have had to live. These are dark and disturbing domestic secrets; the kind where you really don’t want to know what went on behind the closed iron gates of the scrapyard, but you are unable to escape the horrible conclusions that arise in your mind.
The Unmaking of Ellie Rook is a seamless blend of folklore and contemporary storytelling that shines a light on dramatic and dangerous family domestics and the insular behaviour that can characterise those who live on the fringes of rural life.
The characters are well drawn and the sense of menace that she packs into her pages is both palpable and chilling.
Verdict: A beautifully written, well-crafted story that packs a big punch. Full of beautiful imagery and allegory, this is a story that has resonance beyond its pages. Highly recommended.
Sandra Ireland was born in Yorkshire, lived for many years in Limerick, and is now based in Scotland. She began her writing career as a correspondent on a local newspaper but quickly realised that fiction is much more intriguing than fact. She returned to higher education her 40s, to study for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Dundee University. In 2016 she won Creative Scotland funding for a residency at Barry Mill, a National Trust for Scotland property.