I have been asked a lot about the setting of Beyond the Sea, and why I chose the Hebrides as the landscape in which the action of the novel plays out.
Interestingly, while the book emerged from a single image of a woman, her hair turned white in grief, standing alone by the sea, a lighthouse in the near distance behind her, I think I probably knew even then, way back in the beginning when I didn’t know much else, that the woman was standing on a beach in the Hebrides. It’s a part of the world that I love. I’m drawn to its wildness, the stark rawness of its beauty, the fact that the weather can change in an instant, sunshine becoming rain becoming sleet.
It is brutal, elemental, timeless – craggy mountain ranges, desolate moorlands, restless ever shifting seas. And yet, I feel there is also something redemptive, magical almost about this landscape. The sea takes away, and yet it also gives back. It is an endless, eternal pattern. The sea is often death, but it is also life. So the remote fringes of the British Isles, the untamed edges of civilisation, seemed a very natural and fitting backdrop for a woman touched by devastating loss, her emotions as turbulent and fast changing as the winds or the tides, but perhaps moving slowly towards redemption.
The lighthouse was also crucial in establishing the mood of the novel. To me, lighthouses evoke images of keepers tending a light at night, keeping vigil during both calm and storm. They are symbols of sanctuary, of hope, of light in the darkness. Yet they are simultaneously the quintessential symbol of loneliness and isolation – solitary towers aloft in the middle of the ocean, battered by the elements. Therefore it too seemed to be a wholly appropriate place for the woman to live – a very visual image of her emotional state.
As I started to plot the novel in more detail, the woman became Freya, whose husband and son vanish at sea the year before the novel begins. She returns to the lighthouse they once called home, seeking solace, trying to move beyond her grief. Beyond the Sea is the story of her journey. But it also tells the story of the Hebrides, the lighthouse and the sea – all characters in their own right.