A first novel breathlessly celebrates an unusual heroine—she works the waters of the Chesapeake Bay—in an unconvincing story of sibling rivalries that have fatal consequences.
Hart’s writing is flawless and her setting—Virginia’s barrier islands—consummately evoked, but her characters seem rootless concepts bound to an overwrought plot. The narrator, Annie Revels, is 20, the year 1920, and she is nursing younger sister Rebecca, who nearly drowned in a nor’easter that almost destroyed their home on Yaupon Island. Annie recalls how Rebecca came close to drowning another time, one day as a toddler on their father’s boat when she fell overboard. She was rescued, but her father spanked Annie because Rebecca had been her responsibility—and remains a responsibility that, despite her affection for Rebecca, Annie has resented since her sister’s birth. Their mother never fully recovered from delivering Rebecca, and not only does Annie have to take charge of the household, but she’s pained further by the fact that Rebecca is beautiful and Annie plain, something especially galling when the two attend local school and the teacher and other students are entranced with Rebecca. When their father drowns at sea, Annie cuts her hair, dresses in his old trousers and shirts, and works his crab traps and oyster beds to support the family. Her hands are scarred and callused, her skin sunburned, while Rebecca, an incompetent and dim-witted housekeeper, spends her days paging through magazines and brushing her mother’s hair. Out on the water one day, Annie meets Nathan Combs, a veteran of the recent WWI and a fishing guide for a nearby hotel. She’s smitten and the two are soon making love, even on the night he comes to dinner to meet the family. But Rebecca sees them, seduces Nathan, and marries him—because she’s pregnant. Then a big storm further complicates this bleak tale.
Tries hard but fails to tell a different story of thwarted passions and family obligations.