The prolific author’s latest is historical, not only in period and subject matter, but in tone and ponderous theme.
The 14th novel from Boyle returns to the Channel Islands off the coast of California, a setting which served him so well in his previous novel (When the Killing’s Done, 2011). Some of the conflicts are similar as well—man versus nature, government regulation versus private enterprise—but otherwise this reads more like a novel that is a century or more old, like a long lost work from the American naturalist school of Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, both of whom saw mankind caught in mechanistic forces and nature as something other than the Eden of innocence so often romanticized. The novel tenuously connects the stories of two families who move, 50 years apart, to the isolation of the title island, in order to tend to a sheep ranch. For Marantha Waters, the symbolically fraught pilgrimage with her husband and daughter in 1888—on “New Year’s Day, the first day of her new life, and she was on an adventure...bound for San Miguel Island and the virginal air Will insisted would make her well again”—is one of disillusionment and determination. Even the passage of time feels like a loss of innocence: “The days fell away like the skin of a rotten fruit”; “The next day sheared away like the face of a cliff crashing into the ocean and then there was another day and another.” The ravages of the natural world (and their own moral natures) take their toll on the family, who are belatedly succeeded in the 1930s by a similar one, as newlyweds anticipate their move west as “the real life they were going into, the natural life, the life of Thoreau and Daniel Boone, simple and vigorous and pure.” Reinforcing their delusions is national press attention, which made much of their “pioneering, that is, living like the first settlers in a way that must have seemed romantic to people inured to the grid of city streets and trapped in the cycle of getting and wanting and getting all over again.”
What may seem to some like paradise offers no happy endings in this fine novel.