I knew from reading reviews (like Helen's here) that this late book is a very low-key story. Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at a college in Cambridge, sees an ad in the Times: "Ivory tower for long or short let. Isolated cottage on small Hebridean island off the coast of Mull." On an impulse, she rents it for her upcoming holidays and invites her brother, a doctor and an avid bird-watcher, to join her. He is delayed by a train accident. Alone one stormy night in the cottage, Rose wakes up to find that a man has left himself in with a twin to her own key. Later, another man arrives, a camper whose tent was blown away, seeking shelter from the storm. A braver woman than I am, Rose eventually goes back to bed and leaves the two men to sort themselves out. A low-key mystery develops around who each is, and what he is doing on Moila. It was obvious to me fairly early on who was the Good Guy and who the Bad.
This is a short book without much suspense, really, but it was a pleasant read. As usual Mary Stewart wrote very vivid descriptions of the scenery, which made the small island and its neighbors come alive. One of the nearby islands, Eilean na Roin, is home to a colony of seals, as well as a wealth of seabirds. I am a sucker for any story with seals or otters (which doesn't involve hunting them). Rose is equally entranced, as are other visitors. I also enjoyed the stormy petrels of the title that sweep over the islands. I recognized the name but had not realized they are "Mother Carey's chickens." It was interesting trying to find more information about them on-line. A Google search turned up pages of school mascots, as well as links to this book. I had better bird results searching for "storm petrel."
I think this is the only book of Mary Stewart's that I have read where the heroine has a brother (even if he is absent for much of the book). I learned that she herself had a brother (but no sisters). Like Rose, she was also a teacher and lecturer for a time. And while Rose is a published poet, she also writes very successful science-fiction under the name "Hugh Templar." Part of the reason for choosing this "ivory tower" for her vacation is to have a quiet space to write. The scenes where Rose sits down to her work, both prose and poetry, made me wonder if they came straight from Mary Stewart's own experiences:
I got back to work, by which I mean that I got my papers and notes out, and then sat looking at them for what seemed like a dreary lifetime, and was really probably only twenty minutes. The words I had written - and had almost, in the interval, forgotten - mocked me and were meaningless. My notes told me what was to happen next, but my brain no longer knew how to move plot and and people forward. Block. Complete block. I sat and stared at the paper in front of me and tried to blank out the present and get back into my story - forward, that is, into my invented future, and out of the world of queries and vague apprehensions.I have read advice from writers that sounds just like that second paragraph.
From experience, I knew what to do. Write. Write anything. Bad sentences, meaningless sentences, anything to get the mind fixed again to that sheet of paper and oblivious of the 'real' world. Write until the words begin to make sense, the cogs mesh, the wheels start to turn, the creaking movement quickens and becomes a smooth, oiled run, and then, with luck, exhaustion will be forgotten, and the real writing will begin. But look up once from that paper, get up from the table to make coffee or stir the fire, even just raise your head to look at the view outside the window, and you may as well give up until tomorrow. Or for ever.
It was the rain that saved me. . . And in another light-year or two I was through the word-barrier, and the book had suddenly reached the stage - the wonderful moment to get to - where I could walk right into my imaginary country and see things that I had not consciously created, and listen to people talking and watch them moving, all apparently independent of me.