Isolation and idylls,
This review is from: San Miguel (Hardcover)
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'She was coughing, always coughing, and sometimes she coughed up blood. The blood came in a fine spray, plucked from the fibres of her lungs and pumped full of air as if it were a perfume in a atomiser.'
T.C Boyle's fourteenth novel opens on New Year's Day 1888 when Marantha travels to the smallest of the Channel islands 100 miles from Los Angeles, 26 miles from the mainland, in the hope of cleansing 'virginal' air and a return to health as she has TB. She looks forward to a new life with her husband and adopted daughter and is determined to be positive. However, the freezing house that awaits means that she quickly realises that husband Will's promise that the climate will be healing and that they will make a success of the sheep farming will come to nothing. 'Her first impression was of nakedness, naked walls struck with penurious little windows, a yard of windblown sand giving onto an infinite vista of sheep-ravaged scrub that radiated out from it in every direction and not a tree or shrub or scrap of ivy in sight.'
The novel has three narratives focused on San Miguel and and its inhabitants up to the early 1940s as war nears and the USA ends an era of isolation following Pearl Harbour. The second narrative focuses on Edith, Marantha's daughter who is semi enslaved by Will and who is desperate to escape the island, and the last section follows the Lesters, who become a type of Swiss Family Robinson media sensation.
T.C Boyle is a masterly writer - I am amazed at the quality of his writing given that he is so prolific. The first novel I read of his was The Tortilla Curtain, a biting satire on immigration and one of my favourites. I understand that Boyle used diaries from islanders in his research and he has written historically before - The Road to Wellville is based on Dr Kellogg, Frank Lloyd Wright is explored in The Women and Dr Kinsey features in The Inner Circle. In this novel though he doesn't seem to have the same energy that are obvious in the others I've mentioned. The island is wonderfully evoked and Boyle's prose is excellent as ever. Will is a veteran of the Civil war, and Lester of the first world war and the men are aiming to set up their own utopias on the island. However, Boyle seems constrained by the real life diaries and the novel does not have his usual pace and freedom. Enjoyable nonetheless.