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Women of the Dunes

A Novel

A beautifully told and intriguing mystery about two generations of Scottish women united by blood, an obsession with the past, and a long-hidden body, from the author of The House Between Tides.

Libby Snow has always felt the pull of Ullaness, a headland on Scotland’s sea-lashed western coast where a legend has taken root. At its center is Ulla, an eighth-century Norsewoman whose uncertain fate was entangled with two warring brothers and a man who sought to save her. Libby first heard the stories from her grandmother, who had learned it from her own forebear, Ellen, a maid at Sturrock House.

The Sturrocks have owned the land where Ulla dwelled for generations, and now Libby, an archaeologist, has their permission to excavate a mysterious mound, which she hopes will cast light on the legend’s truth. But before she can begin, storms reveal the unexpected: the century-old bones of an unidentified man. The discovery triggers Libby’s memories of family stories about Ellen, of her strange obsession with Ulla, and of her violent past at Sturrock House.

As Libby digs deeper, she unravels a recurring story of love, tragedy, and threads that bind the past to the present. And as she learns more of Rodri Sturrock, the landowner’s brother, she realizes these forces are still at work, and that she has her own role to play in Ulla’s dark legend.

This reading group guide for Women of the Dunes includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Libby Snow has always felt the pull of Ullaness, a headland on Scotland’s sea-lashed western coast where a legend has taken root. At its center is Ulla, an eighth-century Norsewoman whose uncertain fate was entangled with two warring brothers and a man who sought to save her. Libby first heard the stories from her grandmother, who had learned it from her own forebear, Ellen, a maid at Sturrock House.

The Sturrocks have owned the land where Ulla dwelled for generations, and now Libby, an archaeologist, has their permission to excavate a mysterious mound, which she hopes will cast light on the legend’s truth. But before she can begin, storms reveal the unexpected: the century-old bones of an unidentified man. The discovery triggers Libby’s memories of family stories about Ellen, of her strange obsession with Ulla, and of her violent past at Sturrock House.

As Libby digs deeper, she unravels a recurring story of love, tragedy, and threads that bind the past to the present. And as she learns more of Rodri Sturrock, the landowner’s brother, she realizes these forces are still at work, and that she has her own role to play in Ulla’s dark legend.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. How does the prologue draw you in?

2. Why is it initially difficult for Libby and Declan to get access to Sturrock House and its property? What is Libby’s relationship with Declan like?

3. Why does Odrhan hesitate to help the fugitives who arrived at the headland? What do his actions say of his character?

4. Describe Libby and Rodri’s meeting on the Sturrocks’ estate.

5. How does Libby react as she examines the bones from the headland more closely?

6. Why does Libby withhold the information about the gold cross from Rodri? If you were in her place, what would you do?

7. How would you describe Ellen and why? How is she different from Libby? What’s the difference between her interaction with Alick versus how she behaves around Mungo?

8. What is unconventional about Ellen’s upbringing and living circumstances?

9. Oliver says to Ellen, “Perhaps that’s what a legend is, a memory preserved over many generations” (p. 107). How would you describe a legend and do you think they are reliable?

10. Discuss Rodri and Libby’s meeting with Declan and Caro. How does Rodri behave? Are his actions in line with what you know about him so far?

11. How would you describe Oliver’s dinner with the Sturrocks? How do the Sturrock brothers treat Oliver? What speculations arise from their conversation?

12. Why do Oliver and Alick decide to examine the headland, or Odrhan’s chapel? What is Ellen’s reaction when she discovers what they are doing, and how does Oliver respond?

13. Dissect Alick and Oliver’s conversation about religion. Do you agree with either man’s points?

14. How do Laila’s last actions tie back to the beginning of the legend, and how will they be remembered?

15. How do you interpret the epilogue? Why do you think the author ends the novel this way?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. For Libby, Ullaness “was etched so deeply into her psyche it was almost part of her being” (p. 4). Share a place that you’re connected to, and explain why.

2. What story from your childhood do you still remember today? Do you think you have remembered accurately?

3. The act of passing down stories through generations is often described as building a chain: “And [Oliver] had an image of the chain forged by the retelling reaching back into a lost past, preserving precious pieces of knowledge” (p. 136). How do you feel about this metaphor? What other metaphors would you use?

4. Libby notes the unconventional domestic arrangements with Alice, Maddy, and the boys, and sees that it works. Discuss what being a family means. Do “families” have to be blood-related to feel close?

5. Read Sarah Maine’s first novel, The House Between Tides, also set in Scotland.
Photograph by Susie McDonald at Brick Lane Studio

Sarah Maine was born in England but grew up partly in Canada before returning to the United Kingdom, where she now lives. She is the author of The House Between Tides, Beyond the Wild River, and Women of the Dunes.

Praise for Women of the Dunes

"By alternating viewpoints and eras and carefully dispensing details, Maine (Beyond the Wild River, 2017) has created an intriguing tale of discovery that celebrates her beautiful setting’s past and present."

– Booklist

Praise for Beyond the Wild River

“Maine’s (The House between Tides, 2016) beautifully detailed descriptions of the American hinterlands provide a stunning setting for this historical tale of intrigue and suspense.” 

– Booklist

“ [A] thrilling historical adventure… Meticulous research and descriptive passages of lush, beautiful landscapes frame Maine’s riveting portrait of a thoughtful young woman who yearns for more than is offered by her station and her gender, and the rough-and-tumble young man who is inexorably drawn to her.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Maine’s gift of setting the mood shines in her latest novel, taking readers on an almost tangible journey from the Scottish Highlands to the Chicago World’s Fair to the Ontario frontier. Sights, sounds and smells come alive even as a years-old mystery swirls up the characters’ senses and emotions.” 

– Romantic Times Book Reviews

Praise for The House Between Tides

“Scotland’s Outer Hebrides provides the sensuous setting for [this] impressive debut…[a] beautifully crafted novel.”

– Publishers Weekly

Maine skillfully balances a Daphne du Maurier atmosphere with a Barbara Vine-like psychological mystery...The setting emerges as the strongest personality in this compelling story, evoking passion in the characters as fierce as the storms which always lurk on the horizon. A debut historical thriller which deftly blends classic suspense with modern themes."

– Kirkus Reviews

“Maine contrasts Hetty’s present-day consternation with the past story of Blake and his wife, delivering details at a perfectly suspenseful pace… the historic mystery will keep readers guessing right up until the end.”

– Booklist

“The stark setting proves to be the perfect backdrop for Maine's well-plotted debut. The novel weaves secrets from both past and present with a bit of a romance and the feel of the Outer Hebrides to build a mystery that is as eerie and complex as the house of Muirlan itself.”

– Shelf Awareness

“Reminiscent of the Gothics of the 1970s, THE HOUSE BETWEEN TIDES by Sarah Maine takes the reader on a stimulating stroll through two time periods, igniting the senses with a classic mysterious aura. The moodiness of the location easily placed my mind on holiday in the past while unraveling the mystery in the present.”

– Romance Junkies

"Evocative...Much is left up to the reader to interpret, which showcases the skill of this debut author. The novel is a haunting story of loss and longing in an unusual setting. Recommended."

– Historical Novels Review

“I really enjoyed the ambiance of the book… It felt like a great harmony between the environment and the mystery taking place. You could feel the mood of people in keeping with the landscape, the mood adapting to the elements... A very enjoyable atmospheric novel, spanning over a few generations, rich in landscape descriptions and suspense."

– Words and Peace

The House Between Tides reminds me of books written by Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart in that they all have the same style of writing, moody, dark and atmospheric stories that involve romance and mystery where the male characters are often brooding and the women are bound to fall in love them in spite of their moodiness and mystery."

– Celtic Lady’s Reviews

More books from this author: Sarah Maine