The complexity of story-delivery that worked so well in Alison’s The Marriage of the Sea (2003) tends toward the reductive here, causing message to intrude on telling.
Alison divides a long saga of family and science into five parts, then arranges those in an approximately reverse chronological order. Thus, during the Nixon years we first meet Alice Forder, nine, as she comes to live for a year in Quito, Ecuador, where her utter-stereotype American stepfather, Hal, will swagger, drive a Cadillac, smoke a lot, talk big and work in the embassy as a backer of big oil and the Pan-American Highway. The Australian-descended Alice, meanwhile, will find herself growing increasingly sensitive to the beauties and natural grandeur of Quito, including its great volcano, Pinchincha—while her also-sensitive mother, Rosalind, will fret over the U.S. policy of economic-political bullying (“Do we really have any right?” she said. . . “Do we really belong here?”). Part two sweeps us back to Australia, 1929, where we meet Rosalind’s young mother, Violet (newly pregnant with Rosalind), as she labors to clear stumps and roots from the soil for farming. From there, its 1822 and Scotland, where the English are driving the Scots from their land, in this case to clear it for sheep. A boy named George—mute since witnessing his mother slain—and his mentor, Mr. Clarence, will leave Scotland to seek their fortunes in the Portuguese Azores as citrus growers, finding success until war isolates them, the fruit trees sicken from contamination and, in consequence, the islands are ruthlessly denuded. Thus it is, in 1836, that the pair set sail for a new start in South Australia, where George will start the family’s Australian line. In closing, Violet, as widow, will take a world tour, and we’ll glimpse Alice Forder, in 1981, on Scotland’s shore.
Intricate, ambitious, often beautiful. But Alison’s people remain small, smothered under the great theme of “Civilization, the Empire’s advance upon the globe.”