An ugly turf war between Maine lobstermen is almost eclipsed by family mythology in this slow-moving second novel from Zentner (Touch, 2011).
Loosewood Island, a disputed territory, straddles the U.S.-Canada border, reflecting the author’s U.S.-Canadian heritage. Since the 18th century, it has been dominated by the Kings family. The first Kings, Brumfitt, was both lobsterman and prolific painter. He claimed in his journal that his wife came from the sea, like a mermaid. She brought a blessing (the sea would provide for them) and a curse (it would claim a son from each generation). Both predictions have been borne out. The current patriarch, Woody, has three daughters (Cordelia, the narrator; Rena; and Carly) and one son, Scotty. Better watch out, kid! Sure enough, when the boy is 9, he’s swept overboard and dies. Soon after, his distraught mother drowns herself. Meanwhile the nearest community, James Harbor, has been poaching their waters. Inspired by a Brumfitt painting, Woody smashes the ringleader’s hand with a hammer, meriting four months in the psych ward. We have to work through a lot of back story before reaching the present. Woody is 57 and having dizzy spells. The no-nonsense Cordelia captains her own boat and is his acknowledged successor. The James Harbor boys are acting up again, adding meth smuggling to their poaching. But even now the story fails to zip along. There are interludes when Cordelia turns docent, as she describes Brumfitt’s paintings, one of which hangs in the Met. Today’s problems (will Cordelia snag her newly divorced sternman? How will her sister’s lesbian partner handle working with Woody?) seem picayune, set against the mythic past. Even the discovery of a mutilated body on a ghost ship lacks a payoff. Toward the end, the ocean grabs yet another family member, and there’s some unconvincing bang-bang as Cordelia confronts the meth smuggler.
That corny ancient curse is an awkward fit with contemporary shenanigans.