Bhalla Strand is a structurally complex novel, set across two different historical periods (1910 and 2010), utilising a number of different narrative voices and elaborating on several themes. At its heart, however, is a relatively simple romantic tale – or rather, two tales, linked by a fictional Scottish island which in itself forms one of the key characters of the book.
This is a plot-driven novel, and its core strength lies in this fact. The action is tightly plotted and the pacing is excellent. The novel starts in 2010, as Harriet Devereux travels to Bhalla House as its new owner, having unexpectedly inherited the property on a remote Hebridean island (based loosely on Harris). She travels there with plans for a restoration project – the house has been an empty wreck since 1945 – with potential development into a hotel and golf complex, as envisioned by her London boyfriend Giles. Once she arrives, however, she meets a range of local characters with their own agendas and connections to Bhalla House, including James Cameron, written as a classic romantic hero. The action is sparked when her initial plans for restoration are interrupted by the discovery of a skeleton under the conservatory, which takes the narrative back one hundred years.
The contemporary thread is woven into that from 1910, the latter of which constitutes roughly half of the book, and is by far its strongest element. This strand plots the history of the last resident of Bhalla House, Theo Blake, an artist of the Scottish Colourists school, from his days as a boy there in the 1890s to his strange death in 1945.
Although predominantly a romantic novel, other themes are touched upon which add some historical colour to the text. Social and economic tensions, both in 2010, but more fully developed in the 1910 sections, are prominent. References to land raiders, Clydeside strikes and socialism pepper the text, and indeed shape the character development of Cameron Forbes, the romantic hero in the 1910 sections. These themes are skipped over, unfortunately, in sometimes quite derivative ways, and never come centre stage. In the contemporary plotline, however, the proposed development of Bhalla House into a luxury golf resort will, for many readers ,have echoes of Donald Trump’s plans for Aberdeenshire and the controversies over environment, landscape and the rights of locals that he generated.
There is much here to interest the general reader then, and in particular those with affection for the historical novel and those who are familiar with and fond of the Scottish Hebrides. The great strength of this novel lies in its descriptions of the natural landscape and the birds and animals that live in it. The author captures very well the nature of life in the remote islands, the weather, skies, tone and regenerative qualities.
The novel is not without its weaknesses, however; chief among these is the character of Harriet Devereux, the peg on which much of the contemporary sections are hung. The overall impression is of someone who says almost nothing and who simply reacts to events in a depressingly over-emotional way. She spends a lot of time hugging mugs of tea and being shocked, and this key weakness opens up a distance between the characters and the reader, making it impossible to really suspend disbelief in a way which makes these types of novels enjoyable. The fact that she manages to dump one objectionable, bossy boyfriend, only to immediately replace him with another, Hebridean version also rather kills the romance of the book. Also, although the author’s credentials as an archaeologist stand her in good stead, there are the occasional anachronisms, which again have a detrimental effect on the reading experience. The author writes about ‘emotionally difficult territory’ for one of her Edwardian characters, for instance, which is not historically appropriate.
Overall, though, Bhalla Strand is a page-turning, unchallenging read; a genre-satisfying – if not entirely successful – romantic novel.