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9781408830703Desolation and isolation haunt two families living decades apart on the bleakest of California’s Channel Islands

 On New Year’s Day, 1888, Marantha Waters arrives on San Miguel island, off the Californian coast, with her husband, Will, daughter, Edith, and maid, Ida. Marantha has consumption and Will has taken a job running a sheep farm in the belief that the island’s pure air will cure her. But the island is barren and harsh, buffeted by fierce winds and often enveloped by fog, and not at all what Will had promised. There are no other people save the farmhands, Adolph and Jimmie, who Marantha barely tolerates and does not trust, especially around her teenage daughter. As the family adapts to life on San Miguel, their days settle into a rhythm of house and farm work. Marantha, weakened by her illness, is relegated to the role of observer, and grows concerned that Edith is ignoring her lessons, preferring to spend time with the teenage Jimmie, and that Will is working too hard. As she grows sicker and is confined to her bed, left alone for long spells every day, Marantha’s concerns and suspicions fester.

Forty-two years later, newlyweds Elise and Herbie Lester arrive on San Miguel, hired to run the Waterses’ sheep farm, which has been bought by Herbie’s army pal, Bob Brooks. At 38, Elise had resigned herself to never marrying and having a family, but she and Herbie soon become parents to Marianne and Betsy. The Lesters aren’t left alone as the Waterses had been – they have visitors who come by boat and, later, plane, and briefly become celebrities: the ‘Swiss Family Lester’. For them, San Miguel is an idyll despite the hard work it requires. Then comes the Second World War, and the threat of a Japanese invasion from the Pacific.

T C Boyle cleverly uses Marantha and Elise to present the stories of the Waterses and the Lesters. Through the two women, who are essentially captives of their husband’s grand ambitions, readers are given a clear-eyed look at the drudgery and sheer cussedness of life on San Miguel. Marantha watches as her daughter rebels against her captivity and the maid gradually assumes the running of the household. She watches her husband remove himself from her life. She sees the futility of the work Will and the farmhands do every day, attempting to bend the island to their wishes, and longs only to return to civilisation. For Marantha, it is not only the consumption that pains her:

That was when the weight settled on her, the stone as big as the biggest boulder Will had shattered with his dynamite – or no, bigger, bigger still, as big as the island. It was the island, the island was crushing her, she’d known it all along …

Years later, Elise, strong and capable, creates a place in which her family can thrive, keeping the house running and raising her daughters while her unstable husband sees to the farm. If she has doubts about the effectiveness of their work on the island, she does not share them with her husband, considering herself lucky to finally have a family of her own and trusting in him to make the farm successful.

In contrast to these women who stand by their men as best they can, Marantha’s daughter, Edith, rebels. She will not allow the men who seek to control the island to control her as well, and longs for the life she knew before being taken to San Miguel. She is determined to, if not recapture it, then to improve upon it by becoming an actress. But to escape she must rely on men other than her stepfather and she has already learnt very few men can be trusted. In her time on San Miguel, Edith has been influenced by the island and, like it, she will not bend to the will of men.

Ultimately, the island itself is the most powerful, if also impersonal, antagonist in San Miguel. Boyle’s elegant portrayal of the island’s landscape and weather illustrates how the homesteaders are thwarted at every turn: fog that rolls in and delays shipments of essential items; rain that falls for days and weeks, turning pastures to mud; wind that whips up the sand to settle on every surface. San Miguel resists all human efforts to claim and calm it. The island’s very nature drives its inhabitants to breaking point because of their refusal to leave the environment be. It is Will’s and Herbie’s attempts to impose human desires on the wilderness that will be their ruin.

T C Boyle’s San Miguel is inspired by the real families who lived on San Miguel island and from this inspiration he has created a gripping portrait of two women who are dependent upon the decisions of the foolish, determined men they have married. Through Marantha’s and Elise’s disparate reactions to their situation, Boyle explores humanity’s determination to survive. San Miguel is also a fascinating portrait of how the natural world can resist humanity’s claim over it and an island that, in the end, triumphs over the men who seek to dominate it.

T C Boyle San Miguel, Bloomsbury, 2012, PB, 384pp, $29.99

Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor.

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