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Monday, November 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Islands

By chance, I recently read two novels set on remote islands. It was pure coincidence, but it helped me think about setting, plot and character in fiction. The island setting in both books serves essentially as a character and helps develop the plot.
The first “island” novel I read was M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. It was recommended by one of my favorite bookstore owners, Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop here in Houston. It did not disappoint. The novel was deeply engrossing fiction of the highest order. 
I was immediately drawn into the story of Tom, an emotionally wounded man just returned to his homeland of Western Australia after the horrors of World War One. The love of the bright and adventurous Isabel and the desolate setting of Janus Rock help to heal Tom’s scars from the war. Tom is the light keeper on this island, a half day’s journey from the mainland, and the light serves as a symbol for the hope he begins to feel until he is forced to make a difficult decision for the woman he loves. As the story unfolds, every character is looking for some kind of redeeming light. The atmospheric setting of the island and the many layers of the plot help to create a story you will never forget. This is this first novel by this Australian writer. I can’t wait to read her next.
The next “island” book I read was T. C. Boyle’s San Miguel. I heard Boyle speak and read from the book at Inprint Houston’s amazing Margaret Roott Brown Reading Series and I knew I had to read this book immediately. T.C. Boyle is a prolific writer and has won multiple writing awards. I have read his short stories, but never one of his 14 novels.  After completing San Miguel, I was excited to know that I have so many more of T .C. Boyle’s books to enjoy…and I will.
San Miguel tells the story of two different families who lived on the island San Miguel off the coast of California at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The novel is based on the real story of these families from diaries, letters and newspaper accounts of their lives. The story is told through the viewpoints of three women.
First we learn the story of the unhappy Marantha Waters, who, along with her daughter, is brought to the island off the coast of southern California by her second husband. He promises her that the ocean air will heal her consumptive lung disease, but in reality the damp, windy atmosphere ultimately kills her. The story is next told through her strong willed daughter Edith, who is essentially imprisoned on the island, by her stepfather. The third and last section is about the Lester family as seen through the loving eyes of Edith, wife of Herbie. The newlyweds move to the island in 1930 filled with love for each other and excitement about their new home. They go on to have two children on this remote, desolate place as Herbie’s manic-depressive personality overpowers Edith’s optimism.
The women in Boyle’s novel are rich in the depth of their characterization. The island of San Miguel is more than the backdrop to their lives; it is a force to be reckoned with and battled against in both families.
The two husbands are war veterans in Boyle’s novel, just as the male protagonist in the Stedman novel. The islands in both novels are places of refuge and healing for the men, but unforgiving, relentless prisons for the women.  Both books made me realize how the setting in which we live influences the lives we lead.  And how the setting of an island can create unforgettable novels.