A grim portrait of the forces that derail an American family whose members find that forgiveness might take much of a lifetime.
By the time the three Thurber siblings are growing up in western New York state in the late 1970s, the region’s economic woes have bred poverty, toughness, and cruelty. Their parents’ drinking leads to “fights that ripped us clean of our flesh and left only raw notes of nerve ends,” says Jamie, the only daughter. The boys, Lewis and Connor, play a “violent, cruel sort of football.” The mother, Catrin, is an artist whose “sadness haunted her.” Her husband, Terrance, decides the only way he can save himself and the kids from his alcoholism is to leave. In chapters spanning the years 1978 to 2018 and narrated mostly by the siblings, Murphy (The Boat Runner, 2017, etc.) takes disconnected snapshots of lives scarred by brutality, broken marriages, loneliness, and misfortune. Lewis goes to sea for years, with the Navy and as a merchant mariner. Connor glimpses domestic normalcy, but birds keep smashing into his picture windows. Jamie’s husband returns from military service badly wounded and then they lose a baby right after her birth. Terrance falls in love with a woman who is bipolar, and he’s electrocuted while working, one of four nasty accidents that befall family members. He hopes he can use the financial settlement to persuade his children to visit him. There are gaps of several years between chapters and little to link them but brief references to a sibling or parent. The fragmentation is fitting but results in something that can feel more like a short story collection than a novel.
The structure is challenging, and Murphy has a tendency to overwrite in fraught moments, a risk that comes from emotional honesty and trying to make the bleak eloquent.