The Billow Maiden is the debut MG novel from James Dixon, due to be published by Guppy books in July 2022. It is a beautifully and sensitively crafted tale, exploring the plight of a tween whose mother suffers serious ill-health, related against a backdrop of Norse legend and sea-faring island life. The story takes place on a remote Scottish island which is not named in the book, however, the sense of place is rendered so perfectly by the author that I found the images redolent of my own visits to Orkney.
At the centre of the story is Ailsa, who we discover has grown up with a mother who suffers from a recurring illness. Her support network are her Uncle Nod, his wife Bertha and their dog Moxie. In the opening chapter, Uncle Nod responds to Ailsa’s anguished telephone call by driving to collect the pair from their city home and taking them to stay at the cottage he shares with Aunt Bertha on a windswept Scottish island. The reader is uncertain for most of the book about the nature of the mother’s illness, but the unquestioning support, love and care that both Ailsa and her mother receive is movingly portrayed. Uncle Nod and Aunt Bertha are people of few words, but they never stop trying to help Nod’s sister recover her spirits, whilst simultaneously trying to shield Ailsa from their fears for her mother’s health. They never once complain about the extra burden placed on them but demonstrate tender, open-hearted, family love.
Wishing to escape her feelings of helplessness about her mother’s condition, Ailsa spends much of her time tramping across the island, exploring the cliffs and beaches, always accompanied by her faithful companion Moxie. It is Moxie who leads her into a hidden cave pulsating with sadness, cut into the cliff face in which she discovers the billow maiden of the title. The descriptions of her early encounters with Hefring will send a ripple of fear down your spine and there is great poignancy in her yearning to help this forgotten individual. Along with a new found friend, Camilla, who happens to be the daughter of the island’s most feared and unpopular inhabitant, Ailsa embarks on a quest to save one broken individual and in doing so, gains an understanding of the plight of her mother.
The story transmits a powerful sense of the hopelessness and despair that some people experience, alongside a reverence for the life force of the natural world and the healing power and sense of purpose that can be found in nature. The juxtaposition of mental well-being set against Norse legend makes for a moving narrative which engenders a real feeling of empathy for people who lose agency over their actions. An extraordinary story about caring, family bonds and healing, which I would highly recommend to Year 6 and Key Stage 3 readers, classrooms and school libraries.
I am most grateful to Guppy Books and Liz Scott for supplying me with a proof copy in return for my honest opinion.