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Know the West

Suffering and freedom in a microcosm: A review of San Miguel


California writer T.C. Boyle's 14th novel, San Miguel, continues his exploration of the Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., which began with last year's When The Killing's Done. This time, Boyle focuses on windswept San Miguel Island and the histories of two very different families who inhabit it between 1888 and 1945. San Miguel attests to Boyle's enduring interest in characters who live in isolated communities, as well as in California's history and ecology.

Boyle has long been fascinated by how nature frustrates human attempts to master it and how our own animal qualities can thwart our efforts to uphold civilization and culture. San Miguel takes this study of the primacy of nature a step further: The people in the novel come and go, while the island remains. It's a worthy premise, but Boyle's characteristically seductive narration so involves the reader with the travails of the first family that it's somewhat jarring to break off with them and move on to the second, whose story is told in an equally absorbing manner but in an entirely different tone.

San Miguel opens on New Year's Day, 1888. Marantha Waters, who subsidized her husband Will's purchase of a sheep-ranching operation on San Miguel, joins him, her daughter, Edith, and her young servant, Ida, on the island. Marantha suffers from tuberculosis, and Will has convinced her that the sea air will help her condition. But San Miguel's weather proves too harsh, and Marantha realizes she is trapped. "She was on an island raked with wind," Boyle writes, "an island fourteen miles square set down in the heaving froth of the Pacific Ocean, and there was nothing on it but the creatures of nature and an immense rolling flock of sheep."

Boyle convincingly conveys what it's like to suffer from TB, and uses Marantha's coughing fits to enhance the drama when she tries to intervene in Edith's odd friendship with Jimmie, a young hired hand, for example, or in the relationship that develops between Ida and Will. Physically, however, she's helpless. "She'd managed to catch herself," Boyle writes at one point when Marantha attempts to speak her mind, but risks a coughing spasm, "her eyes watering from the effort, a thin wheeze of regurgitated air rattling in her throat." Whenever Marantha insists her family behave according to off-island morals, the stress of the conflict leaves her exhausted and bedridden.

Eventually, Marantha and Edith leave the island and Marantha's increasingly overbearing husband. As Will becomes more obsessed with his ranch, he fits the megalomaniac role that Boyle has repeatedly played with in his novels, from Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle to Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women, although the selfish and pigheaded Will lacks those characters' redeeming qualities.

The second section of the book, told from the perspective of Edith, is the most suspenseful, as the refined, theater-loving woman struggles to avoid a return to San Miguel and conscription as the servant of her stepfather Will. "On a ranch, there were not gentlemen or ladies," Edith thinks, "there was just life lived at the level of dressed-up apes tumbled down from the trees."

The first two sections follow the pattern of classic gothic horror stories, like Wuthering Heights, a novel that Edith rereads to the point of boredom. Indeed, Marantha and Edith's life on San Miguel is reminiscent of feminist horror stories like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." Will traps Edith and Marantha on the island and forces them into roles that are counter to everything they value, even to the point of insanity and death.

The third section, which skips ahead to 1933, is essentially a love story, narrated by Elise Lester, who arrives on the island at age 38, the same age at which Marantha began her ill-fated tenure decades before. But Elise, who'd expected to end her days as a spinster librarian in New York City, welcomes the move to San Miguel with her charismatic World War I veteran husband, Herbie.

This third section of San Miguel is radically different in tone, a story of domestic happiness. The Lesters live in a bucolic idyll, running the sheep ranch and raising their daughters, until health problems and World War II intervene. After depicting the island as the locus of misery for the Waters women, Boyle's portrayal of Elise, who finds liberation in living close to nature, her workload eased by a few modern conveniences and the support of her husband, shows that the harshness and isolation are caused not by the land itself, but by the relationships of its human inhabitants.

In San Miguel, Boyle skillfully depicts parallel lives on one island, portraying two opposite ways of thinking about life amid nature -- ranging from nightmare to a dream of freedom.