"I am Mrs Geddes. My late husband was the lightkeeper."Lighthouse surveyor Archie Buchanan has come to realise, working for Robert Stevenson, that no further advancement in his career is possible. Fortunately he has other employment lined up: in four months he will be sailing on HMS Beagle.
Every word she spoke made it seem the more extraordinary that she was here. She was a lady. She spoke the King's English. Her skin was as brown as a hazelnut. She wore gold studs in her ears, and a sacking apron stained with soil. He saw that her hands were dirty, covered with earth in fact. (p. 97)
One of the last projects of his current employment takes him to the Isle of Man, and onward across dangerous waters to the tiny (and mythical) island of Ellan Bride, sixteen acres of rocky land that lies to the southeast of the Calf of Man. Accompanied by his assistant Ben Groat (another assistant, Drew Scott, is left to languish in the Castletown gaol after a drunken affray), Archie flees the objections of the Water Bailiff and the Governor with relief -- he's only the surveyor, after all -- to assess the island with an eye to replacing the outmoded, privately-owned lighthouse that has stood there, tended by the same family, for half a century.
What's left of that family -- two women, two girls, a boy -- lives hand-to-mouth on £18 per annum, two-thirds of the wage that was paid to the previous lightkeeper, Jim Geddes, before he was swept away and drowned one stormy night. His sister Lucy tends the light: his widow Diya, mixed-race daughter of an East India Company official, tends the family, and dreads losing this home that she has won at such cost after being taken from her childhood home in India, and then being left penniless on the death of her grandmother.
The arrival of two young men on Ellan Bride -- though they only remain on the island for a few days -- changes the lives of the inhabitants, and of the surveyors. Lucy accepts her past; Diya thinks of the future. Breesha acknowledges loneliness; Billy, encountering adult males for the first time since his uncle died, starts to have ambitions; Mally, Diya's younger daughter, is horrified by the idea that, as a female, she is somehow inferior. Archie begins to believe he'll have something to come back to. And Ben starts to think that perhaps he doesn't want to be footloose and fancy-free for ever.
Not all change is good. Everyone on the island knows that Archie and Ben are presagers of their own departure: when the new light is built, they will no longer be needed. Diya and Lucy argue, viciously, for the first time since Jim's death. Mally and Billy fight over whether to help the surveyors. And Breesha, little mystic, is driven by a dream to an act of wickedness. But all change is part of the process of life.
Elphinstone's writing is as changeable and magical as the island itself. Each character's voice is at once distinct and rooted in that character's upbringing and experience. Billy's narrative is especially compelling: he's fascinated by everything he observes on the island, and simultaneously full of frustrated rage and bitterness. Lucy's mindset has been formed by having spent almost all her life on the island: You seem to look at everything backwards. Why would I be wanting a chronometer when it's the light and the tides that give me the time? I'm never needing a clock to tell me it's sunset, but when it's sunset I can read off the number in the almanack, and that way I always know what time it is.
Though Ellan Bride is mythical, Elphinstone brings it to a reality rooted in her own time on the Isle of Man. Ancient keeills, puffins, monstrous waves, seals at play, shipwrecks and treacherous tides: all with the ring of truth, all marvellously evocative.