CIVILIZATION has always had its malcontents: detractors who despise the rat race and the corruption that inevitably accompanies human enterprise.
By TC Boyle
Bloomsbury, 394pp, £14.99
These idealists long to return to a simpler, presumably purer life. In TC Boyle’s mesmerising and elegiac 14th novel, San Miguel, two utopians from different eras – Will Waters, a veteran of the American Civil War, and later, Herbie Lester, a First World War veteran suffering from shell shock – establish their own private idylls on the desolate Channel Islands off the California coast.
Both men seek to escape the horrors of their wars, and both, in their egotism and maniacal drive, ignore the desires, needs and safety of the families they bring with them. But the star of the book is the island itself, San Miguel, in all its glorious barrenness, its guano-coated cliffs and its pounding waves that cough up remnants of the frequent shipwrecks around the rocky shore. (A coffin shows up and is converted into a couch, then later is restored to its original purpose.) The inhabitants find the island pummelled by sandstorms and shrouded by fogs, only infrequently giving way to rare days when it is the paradise they sought.
Boyle’s previous novel, When the Killing’s Done, was also set on the Californian Channel Islands. That novel dealt with the environmental devastation wrought by decades of human interference on the islands; San Miguel re-examines this history from the perspectives of three women.
The book opens on New Year’s Day 1888 with Marantha Waters arriving on San Miguel with her second husband, Will, and her adopted daughter, Edith. Marantha is consumptive and has just suffered a severe haemorrhage while in Santa Barbara. Boyle’s sinuous prose draws us into the awful reality of Marantha’s coughing fits as the “blood came in a fine spray, plucked from the fibres of her lungs and pumped full of air as if it were perfume in an atomizer.” Will has promised her the climate will be healing. He has also promised they will make a success of the sheep operation he has bought into with the last of her money.
Besides the inhospitable weather, Marantha’s early clue that she has been misled – or rather totally disregarded – is the shabbiness of their house. Fanciful, novel-reading, artistic Edith, who misses her piano and dance lessons and pines for her friends back in San Francisco, compares the island to Wuthering Heights. “Only where’s my Heathcliff?”
Boyle has said in an interview that he is drawn to this period because it was a time when “there were unexplored jungles, unclimbed mountains, the world was much bigger”. In the novel, the island is entirely cut off from civilization for weeks or months at a time even though it is only 26 miles from the mainland. Boyle skillfully captures that tension-filled quietude in the pared-down, mundane details of cleaning, cooking, caring for livestock and enduring the tedium of unchanging days. Small events grow in importance – the rescue of a lamb, the leaking of a roof, the preparation of a special lobster dinner. For Boyle, a writer known for his maximalist plots, it is a brave stylistic choice that pays off, allowing the reader a visceral experience of what life was like at the time.
After Marantha, Boyle shifts briefly to her daughter’s story two years later, when at 16 she’s forced to leave her San Francisco boarding school and return to the island. Will puts Edith to work as a servant, in charge of cooking and cleaning for him and the other workers. Her hatred of the island and of him drives her to increasingly desperate efforts at escape.
Boyle has written about self-centred men through the viewpoints of women before – notably in The Women, the story of Frank Lloyd Wright as seen by the women in his life. In San Miguel, the main egoist is also the most fully realised character: Herbie Lester, who with his wife, Elise, comes to the island in 1930, takes over Will’s farm and stays a dozen years, raising a family.
Herbie’s manic energy fuels the ranch. By turns, he is generous, loving and a good father; he is also depressive and selfish. Thanks to Boyle’s immense talent we come to care deeply about this complicated and difficult man’s fate. Elise, grateful to escape her lonely life as a spinster librarian in New York City, is a willing partner in Herbie’s vision of the island as their private kingdom; her strength and independence belie her passivity in the face of her husband’s increasingly erratic behaviour.
Herbie’s infatuation with Haile Selassie (which culminates with his writing to the Ethiopian emperor to volunteer his services and gun collection), his pleasure when Life magazine labels them the “Swiss Family Lester,” his courting of celebrity and the lecture circuit – all indicate that the idyllic, isolated utopia they sought has become impossible to sustain. It has turned into an affectation, and the Lester family is in danger of becoming a kind of circus act. In the pages of this novel, at least, that tantalising dream is preserved.