"Down to the Sea" by Sue Lawence tells the story of the lives of the occupants of one house across three centuries, but it is also so much more. Written so that chapters alternate between different periods, the book starts with a prologue that gives no sense of time or place, but builds a tension and expectation that continues throughout. Wardie House is in the Newhaven district of Edinburgh and in the early 1980s it is badly in need of renovation and some TLC. In come Rona and Craig, a young couple whose vision is to return the house to its former grandeur and run it as a luxury care home for the elderly. But all is not as it first appears and the house seems uneasy to take on its new mantle, with disturbing sounds hinting of a less than happy past.
Cut to the 1890s; and Wardie House is known as Newhaven Poorhouse. Built as a family home for successful and prosperous owners, when there is a downturn in their fortunes, the remaining members seek to turn their failing reputation around by taking in the area's poor. One such is Jessie, who finds her way there having been ostracised by her family and the local community following the death of their menfolk in a terrible storm. Jessie is singled out because she has a facial deformity which earns her the distrust of many and the name "winzie", a derogatory term used by the superstitious fishwives who believe Jessie is to blame for their loss. Life in the poorhouse is grim. It is run by a tyrant of a matron and her brother, the governor, who has turned to alcohol and loose women. He does little to support the enterprise. Jessie is employed in the kitchens where she prepares the meager rations served to the inmates. But she also beds down with them in a freezing dormitory where she makes friends as well enemies. But the stigma of her deformity has travelled with her and sees her singled out for malicious treatment by other girls.
Back in the 1980s the transformation of Wardie House is complete, but the arrival on the scene of an unpredictable neighbour and her insistence that she be part of their lives, throws Rona and Craig into turmoil. Their characterful historic pile seems to harbour a less than happy history and as stories of its past life come to light, it seems that Wardie House and its new residents are becoming drawn into a situation over which they have no control. "Down to the Sea" is fast paced and full of fear and intrigue. The alternating timeframes allow the story to develop, at first in separate strands, which later converge with profound and dangerous consequences for the new owners and their elderly charges. The success of the author is in the telling of the story in such a way as to create a sense of unease in the reader that persistst right through the the book's satisfying conclusion.