Wind Swept

A review of San Miguel by T. Coraghessan Boyle


The wild beauty of California's Channel Islands has seemingly captivated the writer T.C. Boyle of late. He has set his last two novels there among the feral pigs, sheep, environmentalists, and ranchers alike that have populated the Pacific archipelago; those who have lived, toiled, and died on the islands' rocky loam. When the Killing's Done, published in 2011 told the story of the struggle between an environmental biologist, Alma Boyd Takesue and Dave La Joy, the founder of the PETA-like grassroots organization dubbed For the Protection of Animals (FPA). In that book Boyle explores the rifts between, what one would expect, two very like-minded individuals, both of whom are extreme representations of their much larger ideologies: preserving the natural order of things; preserving the most insignificant life no matter what the cost.

In his latest work, Boyle sets the politics aside and digs into the history behind one of the larger islands in the chain, San Miguel of the title. He focuses primarily on three women, inhabitants of the isle with three very different stories to tell. The first two are from the same family, Marantha Waters and her adopted daughter Edith, the last, forty years hence, being Elise Lester, wife of the self proclaimed, "King of San Miguel", Herbert Lester.

In his Author's Note, Boyle sites three texts; two memoirs of the Lester family, one written by Elise and one by her daughter Betsy, and Mrs. Waters Diary of Her Life on San Miguel Island edited by Marla Daily, all to which he acknowledges his "debt". Although the author has "tried to represent the historical record as accurately as possible", he proclaims "this is a work of fiction, not history, and dialogue, characters and incidents have necessarily been invented."; a literary device the authors uses regularly, in fact, like clockwork. Every third book published by Boyle makes use of real-life characters. They have included: explorer, Mungo Park; corn flake magnate, John Harvey Kellogg; and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey among others.

Telling the story from the female perspective is nothing new to Boyle either. His previous historical novel, The Women, chronicles the life of iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the eyes of four women, his wives and lovers alike, who offer a unique view of the brilliant but sometimes difficult artist. However, the women of San Miguel reveal something larger than simply a portrait of an artist. Collectively they seem to evoke a  cumulonimbus of isolation; confessing their daily existence being obscured from civilization. But separately, each woman has her own relationship with not so much loneliness as "aloneness", the examination of which contributes to Boyle's success.

At the outset, the consumptive Marantha Waters follows her sheep rancher husband, Will, to the grange of his dreams with the understanding that fresh air, peace and quiet will do her good. But when they arrive, she is surprised by the ruggedness of the place. After an ordeal of a climb from the shore to the plateau where they are to live, she is flattened by the sight of the house and its environs. Boyle plies his trade with metaphor thus:
A jagged line of dark nailheads ran the length of the clapboards, climbing crazily to the eaves and back down again as if they’d been blown there on the wind, the boards themselves so indifferently whitewashed they gave up the raised grain of the cheap sea-run pine in clotted skeins and whorls that looked like miniature faces staring out at her—or no, leering at her.
Boyle often antagonizes his characters with the raw power of nature, with the wind and the weather (it's no wonder being a California resident). In the short story, La Conchita from the Wild Child collection, a deliveryman, of sorts, finds himself stymied on the highway by an ill-timed mudslide. In another story entitled Swept Away, the forcefulness of the wind on the English moors has a cyclonic effect on the American love interest of a local smitten soul. In San Miguel he uses the weather again to alienate Marantha from her new home:
Until now. Now, as she lay there in the dark, the thing in her chest quiet for once, she was afraid. The wind kept beating, keening, unholy, implacable, and it was as if it were aimed at her and her alone. As if it had come for her. Come to blow her away across the waters and force her down beneath the waves, down and down and down to the other place, darkness eternal.
San Miguel Island: one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA
But there is more at work against the women of San Miguel. Tuberculosis casts its ashen shroud over Marantha while Will, though well-meaning and hard-working most of time, sows a bit of his own toxic seed throughout the Waters' household. Edith falls prey to teenage angst, precipitating flight. But when the inevitable occurs-- after a taste of mainland education, attending a seminary in San Francisco-- and she returns to the island with her father, her thespian desires are promptly dashed against the barren shore:
She came up on deck when the anchor dropped in the harbor, feeling as if she’d been singled out and sentenced for some crime as yet unnamed. The sky was overcast, the island a dun fortress hammered out of the waves. Wind drove at her on a stinging whiplash of spray, and even then, even in the first moments of her sentence that could stretch on for months or years even, it carried the stink of sheep to her and the distant racketing of the seals and sea elephants. Nothing had changed. Miss Everton’s Seminary had never existed, nor her mother, nor San Francisco, nor the rented rooms or the house in Santa Barbara. This was all there was, world eternal, the quality of mercy is not strained, but it is, it is.
She reconciles herself with the ranch hand Jimmie, her only contemporary for many miles, one she places woefully beneath her. Here Edith draws an analogy of their relationship to Shakespeare's tale of another wind blown isle.
She was like a savage, like Jimmie, like Caliban—or no, even worse, because she’d let him touch her as if he and she were the same, as if she were his wife, not Miranda, not even Sycorax, but worse, far worse, Mrs. Caliban herself.
Elise Lester is another story altogether. Being from the east coast,she embraces the reclusiveness along with her brand new spouse, Herbie; so in love they speak french nothings to each other. Together, and later with their children, they accept the challenge in the spirit of a sort of pioneerism; Manifest Destiny pushed just a little further to the left. When a Japanese skiff lands on the island, Elise greets them with a '“Welcome, welcome to our island,” and she couldn't help adding, thinking of Herbie, “the Kingdom of San Miguel.”.' To Elise it is their kingdom alone, her husband the titular King. But alas he turns out to be a bit of a fickle king, his moods swinging from one pole to the other. They survive the island as the rest of the world barely survives the second World War. San Miguel, which in actuality was leased to the Lesters by the US Navy, becomes a sentinel base, occupied by naval personnel to monitor potential enemy communications.

The novel is narrated in the close third person throughout, shadowing the women very tightly, though leaving enough latitude for Boyle to follow the supporting characters somewhat as well. Choosing this point of  view as opposed to first person also allows for him to tell the stories in his unique style, the restrictions of intellect and ignorance removed. Yet he doesn't sacrifice the intimacy of first person narrative. He still makes us feel the pain, glory, and perseverance of the trio in a visceral way. Their vastly diverse personalities are, however, laid flat on the moors off the coast of America. They are levelled by the unrelenting vigor of nature -- forever threatening to "bury them them like Ozymandias". But thanks to the archaeological talents of the author, the flesh and blood inhabitants have been, like artifacts, unearthed, dusted and presented with blunt candor. No Ramessean claims of grandeur here, just the undying sweep of the wind.

  • Title: San Miguel
  • Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • File Size: 851 KB
  • Print Length: 384 pages
  • Publisher: VIKING ADULT (September 18, 2012)
  • Sold by: Penguin Publishing
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007V65Q64