Monday book review: San Miguel, By TC Boyle


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The Independent Culture

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.

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