The formation and disintegration of a family, overshadowed by the rape of Alaska.
British novelist Hardy (Mister Candid, 2005, etc.) produces pages as if from some bottomless source. The back stories of her principal characters are copious, and whether writing of Minnesota hog farms, trawler fishing around the Aleutians or Irish subsistence crofters, she has anecdotes, local color and incident to spare. Two central figures emerge from this wealth of description: poor Irish beauty Maggie Regan and haunted American oil man Billy-Ray Rickman. Maggie escapes rural poverty in County Mayo to taste freedom briefly, working in London, before returning in shame. Billy-Ray survives a scarring childhood—the death of his two brothers in World War II destroys his parents—to become a successful geophysicist riding the wave of oil exploration. The point at which the paths of Maggie and Billy-Ray intersect is the book’s pivotal moment and the reason for its confusing back-and-forth timeline, spanning the 1950s to 2000. Intended as some kind of epic, and freighted with heavy moral themes about the despoliation of the wilderness and the expropriation of Native Indian lands, the story has the requisite breadth and intelligence but falls short when it comes to the actual plot. In essence it chronicles, lengthily and rather flatly, Billy-Ray’s fall from grace. He sacrifices youthful ideals—respect for the earth’s majesty, appreciation of its wild beauty—as well as his happy marriage to a British blue blood in exchange for blind service to the energy industry (he’s involved in the extraction of black gold from Alaska, whatever the environmental or ethical cost). He is last seen skulking in the background during George W. Bush’s election. For all its devotion to texture as well as weighty themes, the novel fails to ignite, offering absorption and a tragic mood but cool characters and ultimately, an oddly empty reading experience.
Exhausting and disappointing.