Book review: As the Women Lay Dreaming 

Sammi Minion reviews As the Women Lay Dreaming by Donald Murray. 

Donald S. Murray’s 2020 novel, ‘As the Women Lay Dreaming,’ is now available in paperback for those unfortunate enough to have not yet had the chance to pick up a copy. Set predominantly on the Isle of Lewis, Murray’s beautiful prose invites a new generation to ponder the impact of the Iolaire tragedy of 1919, in which 200 servicemen lost their lives onboard an overcrowded yacht that capsized less than a mile from Stornoway harbour in Lewis.

Murray’s most important character is Tormod Morrison, a survivor who spends the rest of his life grappling with the guilt of his survival. The consequences of this guilt leave a lasting imprint on his life and are passed on to his grandson.

The novel’s structure is fascinating, starting in the 1930s as children Alasdair and Rachel are chaperoned north to meet their grandfather Tormod after the tragic loss of their mother to pneumonia. The narrative then jumps back and forth in time as Alasdair translates his grandfather’s old journals of his experiences during the war, the disaster itself, and his struggles to rebuild his life and reintegrate into the community afterward. The 1930s setting offers readers an insight into how Alasdair’s initial resistance to leaving the familiarity of his urban home transforms into an appreciation of the beauty of life in the Hebrides. Alasdair credits this as ‘an unbending experience of how a man should live.’ Despite Tormod’s profound sadness, he perseveres as an inspirational father figure, imparting to his grandson the splendour of rural Hebridean life.

Murray’s engagement with the Iolaire disaster is perhaps the most intriguing to date. The fact that this exploration comes from a writer born in 1956, nearly 40 years later, is a testament to his deep understanding of how our identity is shaped by the stories passed down through generations.

Combining structural intrigue, powerful prose, and a captivating exploration of family history, Murray’s novel deservedly received The Paul Torday Memorial Prize in 2020. Now available in paperback, it should be on everyone’s reading list this summer.

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