"As the Women Lay Dreaming" by Donald S Murray is described on its cover as "a novel of the Iolaire disaster", which it is, but it is also so much more. Whilst the focus of the novel is the fateful night HMY Iolaire went down in the early hours of 1 January 1919, the reader is taken on a very personal journey which charts events leading up to the disaster and the disaster itself, through the eyes of Lewis man, Tormod Morrison. Tormod is an ordinary, hardworking man from a typical island family who, naively, sees going to war as an opportunity to escape his responsibilities and see the world. What he gets from it is an extraordinary, life-changing experience which is to dramatically impact on his own and his family's future lives.
Tormod was there the night the HMY Iolaire was lost, as it smashed into rocks and sank with the loss of 200 lives mere yards from safety in Stornoway harbour, on the long journey home from war. Hours earlier he had responded to the requests from his fellow comrades to sketch portraits for wives and girlfriends as mementos of the war and of their victorious voyage home. Tormod, the artist, took up his pencil to draw the faces of those who would later perish. As a survivor, the disaster would mark him indelibly, but Tormod remains a compassionate soul who, despite being touched by such tragedy, has a kind and open heart. Two decades on from the loss of HMY Iolaire he takes in his grandchildren, when their father cannot care for them, and nurtures and protects them as his own. He teaches them about island life, which is a world away from the Glasgow of their earlier years, and instills in the young Alistair and Rachel a love for the land and for nature.
Whilst "As the Women Lay Dreaming" does indeed tell the story of the HMY Iolaire's final journey, it is also a poignant tale of family, love and relationships lived out in the hardest of places at the grimmest of times. It lays bare the soul of a man who, in his time, would never have revealed the thoughts and feelings laid out in the pages of this book, because it simply wasn't the done thing. Instead he wrote them in his diary and that diary was handed down many years later to his grandson, Alistair. The narrative in "As the Women Lay Dreaming" shifts from the grandfather to the grandson, from 1919 to 1936, from the first person to the third from chapter to chapter, and it does so seamlessly. We get to experience the changing world through the eyes of these two connected people at two pivotal times in history. Their story is sometimes dark and often dangerous, but it is also uplifting as it is inevitable a story of survival and adaptation.
Donald S Murray is superb in bringing his characters to life and making the incidents they encounter feel utterly real. In "As the Women Lay Dreaming" this reader was drawn so convincingly into the time and the place, that it was possible almost to experience the child Rachel's breathy run over the moorland as she seeks to escape her invisible pursuer. This is a very special book and one we would wholeheartedly recommend.