An Atmospheric, Haunting Mystery Rests at the Heart of Elizabeth Brooks’ ‘The Orphan of Salt Winds’

A gothic debut set in WWII-era England.

The Orphan of Salt Winds Elizabeth Brooks
The Orphan of Salt Winds Book Cover The Orphan of Salt Winds
Elizabeth Brooks
Tin House
January 15, 2019

England, 1939. Ten-year-old Virginia Wrathmell arrives at Salt Winds, a secluded house on the edge of a marsh, to meet her adoptive parents―practical, dependable Clem and glamorous, mercurial Lorna. The marsh, with its deceptive tides, is a beautiful but threatening place. Virginia’s new parents’ marriage is full of secrets and tensions she doesn’t quite understand, and their wealthy neighbor, Max Deering, drops by too often, taking an unwholesome interest in the family’s affairs. Only Clem offers a true sense of home. War feels far away among the birds and shifting sands―until the day a German fighter plane crashes into the marsh, and Clem ventures out to rescue the airman. What happens next sets into motion a crime so devastating it will haunt Virginia for the rest of her life. Seventy-five years later, she finds herself drawn back to the marsh, and to a teenage girl who appears there, nearly frozen and burdened by her own secrets. In her, Virginia might have a chance at retribution and a way to right a grave mistake she made as a child.

Elizabeth Brooks’s gripping debut mirrors its marshy landscape―full of twists and turns and moored in a tangle of family secrets. A gothic, psychological mystery and atmospheric coming-of-age story, The Orphan of Salt Winds is the portrait of a woman haunted by the place she calls home.

In the winter of 1939, months into World War II, orphaned Virginia Wrathmell arrives at her new home at Salt Winds. The old mansion, adjacent to a treacherous marsh she’s instructed never to enter, a distant mother, Lorna, and a kindly father, Clem, welcome the sensitive orphan into her new life in Elizabeth Brooks’ The Orphan of Salt Winds.

76 years later, on New Year’s Eve 2015, a much frailer Virginia lives isolated and alone in a deteriorating Salt Winds. Haunted by the events that have transpired between her childhood and the present day, Virginia is relieved, and resolved to her fate when she comes across a sign indicating that her time has come. And the surprise appearance of a teenage girl in the marsh on the same night allows Virginia to finally tell her story, shedding once and for all the ghosts and sins that she’s carried with her for decades.

Years prior, everything changed for Virginia the day an enemy plane crash-landed in the marsh. Clem set out to help the injured pilot and never returned. Creepy widower Max Deering, who was once engaged to Lorna and has an unsettling interest in young Virginia, saw the opening as his chance to take everything he ever wanted. But it’s what’s hiding in the attic that forever alters the course of everyone’s lives.

Brooks’ gripping debut is a gothic-noir masterpiece. Atmospheric and mesmerizing, the slow, suspenseful build to the climax is perfectly paced. The back-and-forth between the two timelines always left me hanging just enough that I couldn’t possibly put the book down, making this the perfect choice for a weekend read. And while the ending is satisfying (you come to know what is in the attic and whose blood covers the floor), it doesn’t wrap everything up in a nice, pretty bow — exactly how a good gothic novel should end.

Perfect for fans of Jane Eyre, All the Light We Cannot See, and The Woman in the Window, The Orphan of Salt Winds would make a perfect addition to your 2019 TBR.
Madison Troyer
the authorMadison Troyer
Book Contributor (Intern)
Maddie is an Idaho native turned Brooklyn dweller. In 2015 she completed her B.A. in Media, Culture and the Arts at The King’s College, and has worked as an entertainment and lifestyle writer for various outlets ever since. In her free time you can find her with her nose buried in a book, chasing her next half marathon PR or playing endless rounds of dominoes with her boyfriend in Bed-Stuy.