"She stood beneath oaks and sycamores on high ground, close to the lych-gate and the stone outhouse that formed the graveyard's southeast corner. A train of celandines lay at her feet. She was dressed in a tam-o'-shanter and a sporran, and held a cutlass and a round shield on which a flowering thistle was carved. A sash hung from her left shoulder, and beneath it was a glimpse of chain like mermaid scales. Painted white she was almost life-size."
On a trip to Morwenstow, England, Jeremy Seal finds a wooden ship figurehead propped up as a gravemarker and wonders how she came to be on dry land. His investigation leads him to the Caledonia, a ship wrecked off the coast in 1842. After searching through local records, he begins to suspect the locals were 'wreckers' who purposely ran the ship aground, looted it and possibly killed its crew. But he needs evidence and while the coast has a history of shipwrecks, it's difficult to prove his theory. While searching through Morwenstow, Seal recreates what life might have been like on board the Caledonia and how they might have met their tragic end.
Seal has a way with words, as evidenced by the quote above. His writing has a lyrical, haunting quality to it that adds to the recreation of the shipwreck. As well, Seal gives the reader a taste of shipboard life in the 19th century. We follow his search through church records, microfiche and local legends. Piece by piece he constructs a narrative of what might have happened but the amount of time that's passed leaves large holes in his body of evidence.
The problem with this book was, it could have been great. But Seal has so little real information to go on that he ends up padding the book. This includes the recreation, which at most is general and best guess as to what really happened during the shipwreck. But the recreation takes up the majority of the book, with the Seal's search for evidence a poor runner-up. Ultimately the ending was unsatisfactory with no real payoff.