Johnson, P. J. Isla Rising: a tale of love, death and destiny. Ferguson Books, 2021. RRP $18.95, 174pp, ISBN: 9780645268508.
Edinburgh’s historic buildings and dark closes have long been the setting for works of literature that err on the side of the gothic, speculative or just out-and-out spooky. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde immediately springs to mind, as does James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. More recently there is Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth. And now there’s another to add to this canon of Edinburgh-set stories involving ghosts, spirits and the magic of the underworld: P. J. Johnson’s debut, Isla Rising.
In Edinburgh, in 1833, feisty widow Isla is on her deathbed as the eve of Samain (what we know as Halloween) approaches. On that night, the dead walk among the living, and, as Isla eventually passes to the other side, her death sparks a journey to find her husband Duncan in the afterlife. This brings her face-to-face with grave robbers, ancient mysteries and earth-bound ghosts.
Isla Rising is a tale of love, life and the mysteries of death. Love for her late husband, Duncan, is at the heart of everything that drives Isla, and her passionate desire to find him again is apparent from the outset:
These days my heart beats irregular but the heart feelings are still there. My eyes do gleam when Hannah, or anyone else, mentions my Dunc. Though it’s years since he passed. Ah, he were a grand man, a proper man, though times I were a devil to him. (3)
Here, even while Isla’s body is failing, her longing and love for her husband can still be felt physically. Connections between body and spirit, or between the physical and the emotional, are themes that run throughout this engaging tale. Just as physical touch, and the ability to physically show love, are also common themes. Thus, when the bodies of characters connect, the true feelings of souls are revealed. Johnson writes:
The water is murky and cool, but his body is warm in my arms. My fear disappears as I know we will rise. We are tight together; it is heavenly. And then he is gone. (19)
In this scene, Isla is remembering a day when Duncan took her rowing on the Waters of Leith and pulled them both into the water. Their love—still new and young at this point—is shown as surpassing the physical and lifting both heavenward. Love, here, is almost a religion, something that lifts the soul.
Despite their close connection, the body and the spirit are still posited as two separate entities in Isla Rising. Both Duncan and Isla rise from their physical selves in a bid to find each other in the spiritual world, but their attempt to reunite is almost foiled by grave diggers when Duncan witnesses Tom and Crowe trying to dig up Isla’s body. He can see them, but cannot physically stop them:
Duncan manoeuvres himself to right above the grave; he uses all his will, all the power at his disposal, to infest the atmosphere with terror. This is when things start to heat up. He never knew he had such clout. (82)
As a spirit, Duncan cannot physically intervene to prevent his wife’s body being stolen. Instead he uses his power as a spirit to change the atmosphere and the air, to instil terror in them spiritually and to unnerve the two grave robbers, distracting them from their task.
When Samain eventually comes, everything unravels. Johnson uses this festival of the dead and living to great effect in creating a powerful and unsettling conclusion to her tale.
Flasks are out for a wee dram. Many of the revellers were drunk before the night began. Under the raucous bravado of loud singing runs a vein of fear; it is an unknown night. Things happen on Samain that no one can explain […] The darkness sinks into a deeper black. (127)
It is this sense of the ominous which brings a deeper feeling of magic to Isla Rising. Of course, the Edinburgh setting lends itself to the Gothic and the spooky, but Johnson’s skill as a storyteller, through the relationship she describes and the soul-and-body characters she depicts, really brings the story to life.
Isla Rising is an engaging and promising debut. The book brings with it its own take on the world of magic and spirits, and reminds us of the enduring power of love in the face of death and the unknown.
Jen is a writer, editor, podcast host and event moderator based in Brisbane. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Fremantle Press and now teaches writing, journalism and publishing at Curtin University, where she’s also doing her PhD in creative writing.