Monday book review: San Miguel, By TC Boyle
Monday 12 November 2012
Captain Waters sinks the last $10,000 of his wife Marantha's income into a sheep farming concession on San Miguel, a tiny, uninhabited island off the Californian coast north of Los Angeles. On New Year's Day 1888, the steamer drops them on the beach along with Edith, Marantha's beautifully unruly adopted daughter. The escalating horror of both women at the punitive adversity of their new lives quickly sparks conflict with Waters's dogged idealism – bracing the first half of Boyle's absorbing narrative with a claustrophobic tension. Decades later, Herbie Lester takes up the tenancy with his not-so-young bride. They find their laughter and optimism not always easy to sustain under frontier conditions.
Based on historical accounts, Boyle's 14th novel is more gently paced than many of his previous. San Miguel is permeated with an elegiac tone, possibly flowing from Marantha's emotional desperation. Atmospherically it is resonant of The Piano, Jane Campion's passionate novel of pioneering tenacity.
San Miguel itself and its moody weather is eloquently sketched by Boyle, as is the quiet demeanour of its main population: "Wool caked in filth. Or, as the tenants see them: "an immense rolling flock of sheep that were money on the hoof, income, increase, bleating woolly sacks of greenback dollars".
This perception underpins the book's emotional heft. San Miguel's tenants are small men, war veterans both, striving to pay off their backers and succeed as independent ranchers, fiercely subscribed to American ideals of self-made independence. How they fare against extreme isolation, hard labour, poverty and the fault-lines in their own personalities is the chief interest in Boyle's absorbing narrative. The island's isolation provides a natural hothouse for wilder passions. Marantha's and Edith's sense of incarceration is balanced by the later protagonists' struggles with depression.
Both tales bear the stamp of Boyle's authority as a storyteller. They cohere into a powerful meditation on the skirmish between character and circumstance in these marginal lives in America's history.
Order for £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Chilling drone footage captures Auschwitz ahead of 70th anniversary of liberation
- 5 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after that Wembley Stadium rant
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Mortdecai becomes Johnny Depp's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Last Tango in Halifax, review: Can we ever really move on from Kate?
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
Leaked documents show Ukip leaders approve NHS privatisation once it becomes more 'acceptable to the electorate'