‘The Unhappy Women’ – San Miguel by TC Boyle

TC Boyle’s latest novel returns us to the environs of his last, When the Killing’s Done, specifically the Channel Islands that lie off the coast of California. Where When the Killing’s Done was a modern novel that took up the reins of what have become familiar, if urgently contemporary, narrative concerns to regular Boyle readers from the likes of The Tortilla Curtain and Friend of the Earth, San Miguel is a novel more in keeping with the likes of The Women, his recent historical take on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.

San Miguel, like Anacapa in When the Killing’s Done, is relatively inhospitable terrain, hard to reach and hard to occupy. It takes a certain kind of Thoreau-esque frontiersmanship to want to brave a life in such a place, amidst the cold, driving winds and the frequent, seemingly interminable rains. Of course, Boyle, drawn to complexity, draws his bead on the women behind the men, the women who – at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – were expected to follow their men, to bear up, to make do and to offer support where support could be offered. An alternative title for San Miguel could well be The Unhappy Women…

It is 1888 and Marantha finds herself on San Miguel in the company of her new husband and her daughter Edith, embarking on a new business venture that has used up the last of her dwindling capital, overseeing vast flocks of sheep whose wool, they hope, will make their fortune. From the get-go, however, Marantha is on the back foot. She is a consumptive, forever struggling with a creature in her lungs, who was led to believe the island air would be beneficial – when in fact the wind and the rain and the fog almost prove her undoing; the house they are given is far from what she hoped and imagined it would be; and, gradually, the relationship with her husband deteriorates.

The second part of the novel centres on Marantha’s daughter, Edith, a precocious, strong-willed girl with ambitions to be an actress who loathes both the island and her increasingly dominating stepfather whilst at the same time looking for distraction wherever it can be found. On San Miguel, the distraction comes in the form of Jimmy, a naïve young sheepherder who Edith refers to as Caliban, instructing him to kiss her on her inside thigh and generally bossing him about in a way he finds enticing. But there is more to Edith than Jimmy can satisfy and it isn’t long before she finds her net cast a little wider in the hope of snagging the kind of fish able to transport her away from San Miguel…

The third segment of the book begins some years later, in 1930 and covers a period of just over a decade, taking in the effect of World War II on island life. Elise, a former librarian and something of an arty sort, is relocating with her husband Herbie, a somewhat bipolar character as the result of his experiences in WW1. As Prohibition and the Great Depression enact their profound changes on the mainland, life on San Miguel proceeds much as it has always done, although Elise and Herbie are cut from a different cloth to Edith and Marantha. Unlike their predecessors, they come to enjoy a strange sort of celebrity, although even celebrity cannot insulate them from tragedy.

In terms of the writing, San Miguel is everything you would expect from a TC Boyle novel. There isn’t, for me, a writer alive who can render complexity with such skill as Boyle. And yet San Miguel is not vintage Boyle and the reason is to do with historic truth and narrative compulsion. If you look at a novel like, say, Talk Talk, his recent-ish take on identity theft, you find a book in which beautiful writing is married to a compelling page-turning narrative. In San Miguel, as in The Women, Boyle is tied – for all his talk of making up scenes and dialogue – to the historical record and this imposes a level of constraint that prevents the book from coming truly alive. Howsoever you cut it, San Miguel is a book in which one thing happens and then another thing happens and then another thing happens. You could certainly split the book in two without any real harm, because what happens to Marantha and Edith don’t really impinge on Elsie. The novel lacks the furious fire that keeps you turning the pages and I for one missed it.

Any Cop?: If you read and enjoyed The Women, you will no doubt read and enjoy San Miguel. If, like me, you didn’t quite get along with The Women, it’s possible you’ll have the same niggles here. If you’ve yet to dabble with Boyle (and really, what is your problem?) start with Drop City or Talk Talk, of the more recent novels, or The Tortilla Curtain or Riven Rock of the older novels.

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