DEBATABLE LAND by Candia McWilliam


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In this British import, McWilliam (A Little Stranger, 1989) imposes her florid voice on Scots and others making a Pacific journey by boat from Papeete, Tahiti. On board are three Scots: Alex, a painter who has recently ended a long relationship and has signed on to work; owner-skipper Logan; and his dissatisfied second wife, Elspeth. Also traveling are the attractive Englishwoman Gabriel, who will serve as cook, and Sandro and Nick, practiced sailors who hail from New Zealand and England, respectively. Periodically, the Scottish characters sink into long reveries about home (Alex, in particular, rethinks his past intensely), and the usual occurrences among strangers sharing close quarters take place (e.g., Logan and Gabriel sleep together). A habit of switching abruptly from one character's interior thoughts to another's without warning confuses occasionally, but it is McWilliam's descriptions that are truly problematic. Her style is like a wild animal, beautiful and powerful, but also undisciplined. She is so enamored of her own vocabulary that she often obscures very basic information, like the trip's destination. Everything is given equal weight here: Alex's memory of an Italian grocery in Edinburgh is described in the most minute detail, including a paragraph about how the butter was apportioned, for no apparent reason. Many of the similes and metaphors are stunning -- a dying woman's last breath ""had come from its mouth like a saw"" -- but arrive so thickly that they begin to irritate with their insistence. Though graceful, unnecessary descriptions still irk. The dialogue, in particular, is creaky and laden with verbal chaff. ""In small enclosed places with highly organised finite interdependencies you can't afford to unbalance a single thing,"" Nick announces when discussing the ecological makeup of islands. Utilizing lovely literary prose is like spelling banana: You have to know when to stop.

Pub Date: March 13th, 1995
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday