Describing one of T.C. Boyle’s books as his most memorable is dicey, because then he publishes another one. Each new book tempts us to say it again. That’s the case with his latest novel, set on the last scrap of land the continent had to offer, an island tossed out in the ocean like an afterthought. That’s how one of Boyle’s characters describes San Miguel, the third of the channel islands off Santa Barbara. Boyle’s previous novel, When the Killing’s Done, dealt with the two innermost islands, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, and the people who struggled to settle there, struggled against themselves, against birds, beasts, weather, well-intentioned environmentalists (a signature Boyle trope) and developers.
San Miguel is a bit of a departure for Boyle, lacking his audacious satire but no less compelling. Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. The cover of San Miguel shows a woman in a wedding dress, her back to the viewer, walking through coppery scrub toward a sky heavy with menace. Three women come to San Miguel to thrive or to escape. Marantha is the first, arriving in 1888 with all the Victorian accouterments, including family china even Joan Didion would envy, and a galloping case of tuberculosis. Her illness is why her husband, Civil War veteran Will Waters, brings her to the island. He’s heard the air is invigorating and he plans to herd the sheep that live on San Miguel, selling the wool and eating the flesh. The novel reeks of mutton, but we get used to it to the degree that’s possible. Marantha has an adopted daughter, Edith, 14 when she arrives on the island.
What a 14-year-old is going to do on an ovine desert island is one of the questions the Waterses failed to ask. Edith is as determined and inventive as Marantha is angry. Difficult to know what to think about Marantha. Her anger is Shakespearean. (“Toast,” she said. “And make me some coffee. Fresh. I don’t want anybody’s dregs . . . . I’ll take it in the parlor.”) But she’s dying, and Boyle wrings horror from her every (as he would put it) phthisic gasp.
Weather eventually defeats them, all sorts of weather. Fog, wind, rain, damp and the elements of their varying personalities.
In 1930 the newlywed Elise Lester and husband Herbert arrive on San Miguel dependent, as the Waters family was, on the sheep, the unpredictable arrival of supply ships from the mainland and the climate. Elise is a happy soul and often so is Herbert, and they flourish for a long time in part because of the birth of two children and the modified isolation from the Depression- and war-wracked mainland. Still, there is all that mutton.
And in Boyle’s writing there are always consequences. Optimists do not thrive in his fiction, and neither do obsessives, although the obsessives are always fun to read about and, we suspect, fun for him to write about.
But the Waters family is not obsessed, and neither are the Lesters although Capt. Waters and Herbert Leslie display occasional symptoms that any casual reader of the DSM would recognize. And unlike Boyle’s previous novel about the Channel Islands, San Miguel is more about the island than the personalities. As Boyle makes clear, the events — every chapter is a stand-alone story — are based on the lives of families who inhabited San Miguel in the 1880s and the 1930s. The author makes use of memoir, diaries and other research. The characters, he writes, are invented, and they are inventive as well, especially those who show up during the Lesters’ occupation of the island. Immigrants who arrive to shear the sheep, Chinese fishermen, two helpless enlisted men sent to guard San Miguel and the coastline from Japanese subs during World War II, a reporter, a pilot, boaters from the Santa Barbara side of the Channel add vivid hints of lives endured or enjoyed off the island.
And what of Edith, Marantha’s adopted daughter whose attempts at escape are part of the narrative as well as of the arid memory of San Miguel? She is the most modern of the islanders, but to say more would be to deprive you of one of the treasures found on this desert island.
Betsy Willeford is a writer in Miami.