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Posted on 25 Jan 2024 in Fiction |

JENNIFER MACKENZIE DUNBAR Missing Pieces. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar’s new novel is inspired by the real-life discovery of a hoard of priceless chess pieces on a remote Scottish island.

Directly in front of her, the queen held her hand against her cheek, as if aghast.

‘What have you seen?’ Marianne whispered, putting her own hand to her face. ‘Have you, too, had loved ones taken? Your life turned upside down?’

Marianne, in 2010, is on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland where, in 1831, a cache of 79 delicately carved chess pieces was unearthed by Malcolm Macleod (Calum) as he dug a grave in the sand dunes for a dead calf. ‘I swear I’ve no’ had a drop,’ he told his wife, Mhairi, when he ran home in terror, ‘I saw them looking at me from below the earth – figures, a three score and more, staring up at me.’

Later, Mhairi boldly faces a group of men (including the Reverend Macleod and six church elders) to argue that these are not devilish icons, but ‘gaming pieces’, ‘chess’, made, she believes, ‘from the tusk of the walrus’; and, since they were found on land on which she and her husband are tenants, she and Calum are entitled to sell them.

The men are scornful of this ‘foolish woman’s fantasy’ but Mhairi has proof:

Digging into my pocket, I retrieved the piece I’d brought with me: a queen … I felt the mood in the room shift while they passed it around. I watched their staunch, cynical faces change to astonishment and wonder.

One by one, they turned the queen over in their hands. They examined the delicacy of her fingers and she, this noble queen, held her face in disgust at their name calling.

What Mhairi requests is ‘a goodly sum’ that will pay off their debts and allow them to pay a year’s rent in advance. Meanwhile, she and Calum rebury the hoard so that it cannot be taken from them, but only Mhairi sees a second bag of figures as they do this and she keeps this secret to herself.

In Missing Pieces, Jennifer Dunbar tells the rest of the story of Calum and Mhairi and their family, weaving into it the history of the island Clearances that eventually took them to America. She also uses what facts are known about the pieces to bring to life other women, including Icelandic Magrit the Adroit, who is recorded in the Norse Sagas as the creator of a beautiful, intricately carved walrus-ivory head of a crosier that was made for the archbishop of Trondheim, and which is now in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Dunbar gives Magrit a voice as, in 1190, she is struggling to complete the figures for the four chess sets (‘one hundred and twenty-eight pieces in total’) that are to be gifts from Icelandic Bishop Jonsson to the bishops of Mann, Scotland, Denmark and Norway.

Viewing some of the completed pieces, Jonsson is critical, then amused. He holds up a mounted knight:

‘You have captured Norway’s image,’ the bishop said, placing the piece back on the table. ‘And his pony seems unable to look ahead, short-sighted just like him’.

He turned to me, his look both threatening and curious, ‘Your humour has a dangerous edge, Magrit.’

I should have dropped my gaze, but I did not. My troubled childhood had trained me to stare down intimidation.

Magrit tells her story – ‘from manure pit to, if not riches, at least survival’ – to young Snorri, as she coaches him in the hope that he may be able to help her complete her carvings now that her arthritic hands have made her clumsy. But it is the bishop’s wife, Herdis, who hatches a plan with Magrit when the sets are not completed, and whose husband ‘knows better than to contradict [her]’ when she tells him the sets are packed and cannot be unpacked.

Dunbar imagines a shipwreck, and a foreign sailor tended by a Lewis woman, Morven, to fill in more of the puzzles about the chess pieces and their burial on the island:

Seamus carried the ivory dolls until we could see the old nunnery, the house of the Black Women, from a small nearby hill.

‘I will take them from here,’ I said. ‘The sisters will keep them until I work out what I am meant to do with them.’

Eventually, 78 of the pieces found in 1831 were sold to a private purchaser who donated them to the British Museum, and ten pieces were bought by the Society of Antiquities and donated to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. Current debate circles around reparation, and the desire of the Scots to have all the pieces returned to Scotland. Dunbar makes this a central theme in Missing Pieces, as her character, Marianne, who works at the British Museum, is sent to Lewis to oversee the exhibition of twelve of the pieces in the museum in the island’s capital, Stornoway.

Marianne is the main focus of Missing Pieces. She has just finished her Master of Arts degree on ‘Stolen Histories’, which examines the cultural significance of reparation of museum exhibits. At her father’s suggestion, she had used the Lewis Chessmen as an example in her thesis, since some of her maternal ancestors came from Lewis. The questions she asks the Lewis chess queen, however, are prompted by her own recent traumatic loss of her father in a hit-and-run accident, which she almost saw, and by her constant thoughts about the baby she gave up when she gave birth at the age of 16. She and her mother, Shona, have an uncomfortable relationship, as these losses have become a taboo subject between them, but she impulsively invites Shona to accompany her to Lewis, knowing that her mother is deeply involved with researching family history.

Added to Marianne’s troubles is her sudden discovery that George, who is her temporary supervisor at the British Museum, has plagiarised her MA thesis for his presentation on museum reparation at a recent international conference.

George has ordered her to go to Lewis to oversee the chessmen exhibition, but Marianne suspects his motives. Rightly, since while she is there she suddenly learns that she is suspected of stealing a newly found chess piece that she had been examining and testing before she left London. The piece was a fake, and she had put it and her report in the secure box to which only she and George knew the access code, although she had once seen George’s PA clear the box for him. How to prove her innocence seems almost impossible, since George denies ever receiving the secure box.

Marianne’s experiences on Lewis, her constant worries and insecurity, her uncertain romantic feelings for Euan, who is in charge of the exhibition, her growing friendship with Agnes, an older islander who is helping with the exhibition, and, specially, the search she and Euan embark on for the unknown site of the chessmen’s discovery, all tie Dunbar’s story together. The history she and Euan manage to tease out, and their actual search, are exciting, and there is the possibility, too, that they might find one of the 49 pieces still missing from the four chess sets. In 2019, a warder (a rook or castle) turned up in a dusty drawer in Edinburgh and fetched £735,000 at a Sotheby’s auction.

This search, and Marianne’s difficulty in proving her innocence and exposing George’s perfidy, provide interesting tension in the book. Some of the situations are, perhaps, predictable and a little clichéd – the wonderfully relaxed and friendly life on Lewis and the rocky nature of the romantic attachments, for example – but Dunbar’s imaginative recreation of the women’s stories over the centuries, and the real history and beauty of the Lewis Chessmen make Missing Pieces a satisfying read. The issue of museum reparation is thought provoking and is currently very much alive; Dunbar provides a list of ‘key sources’ for the history she includes in the book, and her story did lead me to find out more about the Lewis Chessmen and the ‘ongoing impact of the Scottish Clearances’ – a hope Dunbar expresses in her Author’s Note.

Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar Missing Pieces MidnightSun Publishing 2023 PB 304pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Missing PIeces from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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