PHUKET: Anything by T Corahessan Boyle is worth reading. His first two novels – Water Music
, about two African expeditions up the Niger by 18th century Scottish explorer Mungo Park, and Budding Prospects
, about modern day marijuana growers in northern California – rank among the two funniest novels ever written in English – are wildly exuberant dances of demonic prose. He’s mellowed since then, dipping often into fiction about historical characters.
So it is with San Miguel
(Bloomsbury, London, 2012, 367pp). This is the sequel to When the Killing’s Done
, his first novel about the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara. There are three sections, each told from the point of view of a woman. The first is entitled Marantha. She is the tubercular wife of a former Union Army captain, who comes to the island in 1888 ostensibly for her health.
She has her good days on the island, but mostly this is a long lament about her crude shack, the isolation, the winds and rains, the treeless tracts grazed upon by 5,000 sheep. There is no company, except for two-hired hands and her 13-year-old daughter Edith.
The action picks up in the second section. Edith is now a beautiful 16-year-old girl. When the family returns temporarily to Santa Barbara, leaving the sheep ranch to a new caretaker, she is overjoyed.
"It was as if she’d never in her life seen or heard or felt or tasted, as if she had been color blind, as if her ears had been stuffed with wax and her tongue coated in magnesia. She’d been deprived, that was what it was, locked away on an island like some fairy princess, everything drab and changeless and the only sound the keening of the wind and the weak disjointed cries of the sheep, the seals, the birds. The world had been stilled and now – in a sudden explosion of color and noise, glorious noise – it had come careening back to life."
Soon she is happily ensconced in a posh boarding school in San Francisco where she blossoms, accomplished in art, music and acting in school plays. Her ambition is to become an actress and singer on stage.
Then her mother dies. Her iron-willed father pulls her out of school and orders her back to the island. She runs away but her father retrieves her at the Santa Barbara train station and she’s off on a boat back to San Miguel. How will she escape? What will she do afterward?
In the final section, Elise is a plain 38-year-old New Yorker who accompanies her new husband, Herbie Lester, to San Miguel in 1930. A World War I veteran, Lester is wounded and recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington when he befriends another soldier, Bob Brooks, a Los Angeles millionaire with the long-term lease on San Miguel and ownership of the 1,500 remaining sheep.
The young couple live on the island for the next twelve years, expanding their home and fashioning a comfortable existence while hosting a parade of rich people who arrive by private plane and yacht. He expands his gun collection, she her library. She home-schools their two daughters and suddenly they are famous, featured in Life
magazine. Herbie Lester is proclaimed "The King of San Miguel".
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sparks a series of events that will end the idyll in tragedy.
"They were the Japs she read of in the newspapers, demonic twisted little men spitting babies on their bayonets, raping women wholesale, leaving Nanking in ruins and Shanghai in chains. That was the reality. And this, this cockeyed dream of wide-open spaces, of freedom and self-reliance and goodness, simple goodness, was the delusion."
Boyle’s previous novel about the two larger Channel Islands, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, starts off with a shipwreck and ends in the mass slaughter of feral pigs. There are no such dramatic events in the sequel. The story of Herbie and Elise Lester is a quiet one of two honest, loving people making a family life against all odds. If this is not exactly a thrilling story, it is certainly an inspiring one.T. Corahessan Boyle's latest novel, San Miguel, is available for download for the kindle from Amazon (click here), or by order through the main bookshops in Phuket.