The Wild Hunt by Emma Seckel

On a remote Scottish island, villagers battle the sluagh–crows said to host the souls of the dead–and the aftermath of World War II, and one young woman reckons with the ghosts of her own past.

“On the first of October they arrived.” Leigh Welles has just returned home to the island of her birth for her father’s funeral, and the crows have returned as they do each October, but she finds nearly everything else changed since the war. So begins Emma Seckel’s first novel, The Wild Hunt, an atmospheric story of place, family, home and belonging.

This small, isolated Scottish island lost many of its young men, “nearly an entire generation off to fight for a country they’d barely thought of until now,” in World War II. Leigh’s brother had gone, and though he survived, he did not come home, and all they’ve done since is argue. Leaving has in fact been a family trait, beginning with their mother’s mysterious departure when Leigh was a girl. Later, Leigh had committed the sin (in island eyes) of moving to the mainland, where she’d been miserable: “the telephone call summoning her home had been a black sort of blessing.” Now she’s returned to the Welles home, “a run-down sheep farm with no sheep.” Her mother gone, her brother gone, her father dead, the island haunted by its absent young men and by the sluagh–those crows who group in threes and beat upon windows and strike at eyes and kill.

Leigh drops with surprising ease into the old ways, reciting the Gaelic and joining the rituals meant to protect the islanders from the sluagh, which are said to carry the souls of the dead. She is disturbed, however, to see the crows’ increased audacity–attacking villagers in the street–as well as the villagers’ subdued reactions and the persistent signs of the war, which has been over for years. Meanwhile, Iain MacTavish, widower and RAF veteran, struggles to function at all, some days leaving his bed only when forced by his mother-in-law. Leigh’s younger childhood friend Hugo McClare kills a crow, and then disappears, on this island too small to hide a man. Leigh and Iain unexpectedly connect over a shared purpose, although it may be of the saddest sort.

The Wild Hunt is part ghost story, part elegy to war and traditional lifestyles, dreamlike even in its horrors. Seckel weaves historical fiction with mystery and fantastic elements and threads of romance in this tale of love, grief, attachment to place and resistance to change. Her island setting is both otherworldly and firmly rooted, and her prose style is lushly evocative. This imaginative novel is memorable and wild indeed.


This review originally ran in the May 27, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 goats.

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