(Canongate 2008, originally published 2001)
“This book exists because Keith Wilson, Artist in Residence at Whitby Abbey during summer 2000, asked me to come and write a short story inspired by the English Heritage dig…” writes Faber in the Acknowledgements. This – actually rather long – story begins with a vivid and deeply unpleasant nightmare which Siân, the protagonist of the story, is suffering every night of her stay in Whitby: in it, she is murdered by having her throat cut, by a man whom she loves. She’s working on the dig at the Abbey, and just after the story starts, she meets a handsome young man running up the hundred and ninety-nine steps to the abbey, which Siân has just climbed laboriously. He’s accompanied by a dog, and Siân’s unsure at first which one attracts her more. Nevertheless, the man, Mack (short for Magnus) chats her up, which Siân finds both exhilarating and slightly scary – she’s thirty-four, and has been single for some time. He is rather contemptuous about the abbey and its former occupants, while Siân defends them, and they argue.
Mack later reveals that he’s come to Whitby to sort out his father’s estate, which includes the dog Hadrian, and has found a bottle with some papers in it. Siân offers to open the bottle and retrieve the papers – she’s a conservator – and he agrees. Over the next few days, she spends her days at the dig, and deciphers the papers by night, meeting Mack each day to reveal what each sheet proclaims: they’re the confession of a girl’s murder by her father.
Faber ratchets up the tension in this novella, partly through the vivid detail of Siân’s dream, particularly as her recurring dream seems to be reminiscent of the man’s confession, and the ambiguous way he describes Mack and Siân’s reactions to him. Siân’s a decent woman, and she’s realistically drawn (though she seems rather older than her age, in my opinion), and her angry defence of the way of life at the abbey is knowledgeable and spirited. Faber reveals information slowly, and likes the twist in the tale, both in respect to the confession and Siân’s souvenir of Bosnia. It’s very cleverly written.
Faber also gets in a few mentions of Whitby’s association with Dracula, but that’s mostly as asides, and Siân is contemptuous of Mack’s theories: one definitely gets the impression that, although he’s training to be a doctor, he’s considerably less intelligent than she is.
I enjoyed this very much – I don’t know if it’s a good introduction to Faber’s books, but it was certainly a good, quick read, initiating a sense of foreboding and menace, and giving an interesting slant on archaeology and the history of Whitby.