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As a follow up to his much-acclaimed novel As the Women Lay Dreaming, set around the 1919 Iolaire disaster, Donald S. Murray has chosen more real events off the Isle of Lewis as the backdrop to his new work.
Operation Cauldron took place in 1952 as a major Cold War experiment on germ warfare in the face of government fears that the Russians were doing the same. The locals on Lewis were told nothing of this highly secret trial using live monkeys and guinea pigs, and it is the human aspects of these events that Murray handles so adroitly.
Of course, the residents of Lewis saw things and indeed found animals washed-up on the beaches. They had heard of the anthrax experiments on Gruniard a decade before and left to speculate on the strange activity off-shore, came up with their own explanations.
Murray once again demonstrates his acute awareness of the effects of environment and past tragedy on insular communities and his characters will be instantly credible to West Highland and Western Isles readers. Some of the men conducting the experiments are beset with moral doubts about their work and this is magnified when a trawler strays into the path of gas released during an experiment. Would this result in the infection of the crew and a possible pandemic?
It was many decades before the government admitted the truth about Operation Cauldron, an experiment which Murray has one character saying had “the rancid stink of downright wickedness”. In his author’s notes at the end of the novel, the author somewhat eerily relates such attitudes to remote location experiments by citing some recent thinking on the Covid-19 crisis and how such areas could be used to test theories on lockdowns.
This is a well-written and well-crafted novel from an author at the height of his powers. Donald S. Murray has proved yet again that he ranks with the best chroniclers of life and events in the Western Isles, and he will now be on the watch list of many awaiting his next offering.
Donald S. Murray: In a Veil of Mist. Published by Saraband, 2021.