Wednesday 13 March 2024

In a Veil of Mist by Donald S Murray


This book is set in Stornoway in the Western Isles of Scotland, in 1952, when experiments in germ warfare were taking place on a vessel in the area, an undertaking known as Operation Cauldron. 

John, one of the scientists involved in the experiments, wrestles with his conscience over what he and his colleagues are doing to the guinea pigs and monkeys they are working with. His doubts build up, particularly as his wife, Lillian so obviously disapproves of even the small part of his work she is aware of. Then there is the suspicion that mist from the vessel may have caused anthrax to be spread among the crew and to people they mixed with. Meanwhile, the other islanders have their own concerns, suspicions and uncertainties about what is happening so close to their homes, which they are not being told about.

The author comes from the Western Isles and recreates the landscape and atmosphere of the place beautifully, also weaving descriptions of the natural world into the story:

"Jessie was still restless, still unable to sleep. She tried to blame other things for this - the corncrake in a nearby field of oats that was sending out a loud, persistent signal for a partner, the weeping sound of a curlew as it swept overhead - but she knew in herself that it had much to do with her own state of mind..... She felt she resembled the moth that appeared in the room the moment the tilly lamp began to glow. It flitted between the curtains and the edge of the stove..."

As a Gaelic learner, I was also pleased to find the text includes extracts from Gaelic songs and the occasional Gaelic phrase - the Western Isles being a stronghold of the Scottish Gaelic language (and more so back in the time the book is set).

The novel is an excellent look into how uncertainty and paranoia can affect individuals and communities. A lengthy author's note at the end expands on the historical background to the novel and gives some context into its relevance to the time it was written in (the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic).

In a Veil of Mist by Donald S Murray, published (2021) by Saraband

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