Billie is a young woman traveling with her very pregnant sister and brother-in-law to his new place of employment as a cataloguer for Lord Hallowhulme on a remote Scottish island. The trip has been long and rather arduous given pregnant Edith's desperate sea-sickness. Just minutes from landing, Billie and her brother-in-law kiss and Billie jumps from the ship. A heartbeat later, the ship explodes and many of the people on board are drowned, including Billie's sister Edith. Murdo Hesketh, a distant kinsman of Lord Hallowhulme's, undertakes an investigation into the explosion, initially convinced that Billie has had a hand in sabotage. While the mystery of the exploding boat weaves desultorily through the novel, the book as a whole is more a character study of Billie and Murdo, examining their past lives, ferreting out the secrets that have formed them into the remote, solitary beings they are in the pages of the novel.
With a narrative akin to swimming through layers of viscous liquid, this is a slow moving and awkwardly paced novel. Knox has pegged the desolation and spare beauty of the setting very well. The spareness is echoed in the characters' interactions with each other and the personal connections between them, main characters and supporting characters, needed more to make them real. A few of the drowned characters, those closest to Billie and Murdo, are given backstories but for the most part, even with backstory, they remain almost as enigmatic as the main characters do. After a languid investigation, the truth about the explosion comes out. Unfortunately it comes out quickly and cursorily, which leaves it at odds with the pace of the rest of the book. It also rather comes out of left field, disconcertingly enough. Despite these problems, Knox is clearly an impressive writer, having a lovely way with words. She submerges her reader deeply into the narrative and has recreated beautifully the turn of the twentieth century, drawing characters who exist comfortably within their time period. This may not have struck me the way that The Vintner's Luck did, but I will still look for Knox's other works (maybe even on my own shelves again?).