Review: The Hollow Sea by Annie Kirby

What a beautiful looking book this is. Here is the cover. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Luckily, the inside is an intriguing debut that lives up to the cover loveliness. The Hollow Sea is a story about motherhood but not as you expect. Rather it covers non-motherhood, the yearning to have a child that is never fulfilled, the hole left behind by not becoming a parent.

The story is told by Scottie, who is about to undergo another brutal round of IVF treatment with her partner Jasminder. So far, the losses they have endured from the IVF have been tough but Jasminder is ever optimistic and encouraging in the way that supportive good men can be without ever really understanding the pain and intrusive nature of all gynaecological procedures.

Scottie is adopted and is haunted by not knowing who her birth parents were. Her adoptive mother, Helen, has encouraged her time and time again to find the answers if that will help Scottie feel more of herself but it is only at the last minute, when Scottie can no longer face IVF again, that she runs away to St Hia, a series of islands in the North Atlantic to join a seal counting expedition and seek the answers to her birth.

The islands are riven with myth and folklore, and the island folk are typically secretive and insular. Scottie’s story is interspersed with chapters that tell of a mother on one of the northern islands who has a girl child to keep safe, and it is fairly obvious early on in the book that these two stories will be related.

Over the course of the seal counting project, Scottie finds out more and meets more people in the islands, and the reader also finds out more about her and her past, and the burden of guilt that hangs on her with regard to her attitude to motherhood.

There was always an obvious way for this story to go and thank goodness Kirby does not tread that path. The ending is so much better for not following the obvious plot devices. The characters are well written – while we get to know Scottie the best, the mostly male supporting cast are nuanced and kind, and the story of Scottie’s family has just the right amount of drama and tension but the links and similarity between her own history and that of her birth family are laid out neatly, leaving the reader to reflect on them rather than have us be bashed over the head with them.

I thought this was an excellently written debut, assured and confident in the storytelling, and emotionally mature in characterisation. There is just enough folklore and mystery to be satisfying without straying into fantasy territory. The themes of ‘barren-ness’ vs motherhood are well depicted without being mawkish or sentimental.

I look forward to reading more of Kirby’s work.

The Hollow Sea by Annie Kirby is published on 18 August 2022.

Waterstones

My thanks to Netgalley for the advance reading copy.

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