Drawing on Edgar Allan Poe, Homer and Herman Melville, an ambitious saga of lineage and whaling in which Mercy and Mordecai Rathbone embark on a circular voyage in pursuit of their identities.
Simultaneously mythic, gothic and whimsical, Clark’s debut imagines the North American whaling industry through the lens of an eccentric, male-dominated dynasty springing from Moses Rathbone, discovered at sea in a barrel in 1761. With his combination of maritime skills and instinct, Moses systematically breeds a line of sons who will harvest untold numbers of sperm whales and generate enormous wealth. Wives are stolen and spurned, girl children mysteriously absent. But the arc of the Rathbone supremacy declines, as does the whale population, and by the time Mercy sets off in 1859 with her cousin Mordecai to look for Mercy’s father and her mysterious twin brother, and also escape the man chasing her from Rathbone House, the family’s history has begun to be covered by the sands of time. Clark imagines a rich hinterland to her briny story, yet the episodic foreground is desultory, with the cousins wandering among islands in the Atlantic, responding numbly to dark, sometimes opaque discoveries. Eventually returning to Rathbone House, Mercy excavates the last complicated layer of her family’s bonds and bids several goodbyes and one hello.
Chicago-based author Clark seduces with her vision and her prose but disappoints with non-epic storytelling.