Set in the north of mainland Scotland, this was, I thought, an interesting story with an unusually open ending.
The main character, Maggie Thame, is a cartographer who escapes Oxford for the wide open spaces of Caithness. She’s 40 years old and divorced with no children. She doesn’t know anyone in Caithness, and has arranged to rent a cottage she’s never seen on the outskirts of a village.
As she settles into her new environment, she walks for miles around the coast and countryside. During one of these rambles she meets Graham, a wildlife ranger, who introduces her to one of the teachers at the local school. The children are engaged in a map-making project and Maggie is invited to come and speak to them. She’s not keen, but accepts the invite and turns up to give her talk.
One of the children catches her eye, a floppy-haired urchin who might be male or female. The mysterious child sits apart from the others, avoided by classmates but apparently tolerated by them. She learns that his name is Trothan Gilbertson and he’s considered a bright, but rather peculiar, boy.
One day Trothan turns up at Maggie’s door with the map he’s been making. Reluctantly, Maggie invites him in and has a look at his map. She’s amazed by the detail, and unlike the maps his classmates have been compiling, Trothan’s covers a large area he has mapped by walking all over the place. She shows him how she makes maps using her laptop and explains the way in which cartographers build maps in layers featuring different types of information.
After his first visit, Trothan makes a regular habit of calling in at Maggie’s cottage, where he sits and works quietly on his map while she works on hers. She asks him if his parents know where he is and he agrees to take a note home to his mum from Maggie letting her know what’s going on. Their unusual friendship continues for some time, until one day Trothan disappears after visiting Maggie’s house. Initially, nobody but Maggie seems to be bothered by this, assuming the boy will turn up sooner or later when he’s finished wandering around the countryside. Hours turn into days, days into weeks, with no sign of Trothan.
The police call round to see Maggie, asking questions in a rather accusatory manner. The stress of Trothan’s disappearance interferes with her work and she starts of feels as if everyone is blaming her for Trothan going missing. The situation comes to a head when she meets Trothan’s parents on the beach and Nora, Trothan’s mum, physically attacks Maggie.
Once she’s got over the shock, Maggie is determined to see Nora again, to talk to her about Trothan. After a difficult start, an understanding, even a friendship of sorts, builds up between them. When Trothan’s parents arrange to hold a service of commemoration for their son, Maggie is surprised, but pleased, to be invited. Her attendance at this sensitive event cements her connection to the village.
The book ends with certain issues left unresolved, which I might have thought would leave me feeling dissatisfied. On the contrary, I thought the ending was skilfully and satisfyingly written. Aspiring writers are often told it’s important to tie up loose ends before completing a novel, but this book proves that if the story is told well enough, the reader doesn’t need all the answers. I think the author made the right decision about this, because I was strangely pleased to have been left pondering possible outcomes.