T.C. Boyle’s fascination with the way nature disrupts a closed system has led him inside human enclaves like research labs, communes, and gated communities with an eye to destruction. His latest novel, San Miguel (past books include Drop City and Talk Talk), presents a riveting triptych of self-selecting pioneers whose determination to tame an island off the coast of California leads to violence and heartbreak.
Boyle returns to the Channel Islands setting of his last novel, When The Killing’s Done, to focus on three women across several decades who settle on San Miguel not knowing what island life will require of them. At the turn of the century, Marantha Waters’ disaffected veteran husband sells her on the move to San Miguel as an aid to her health, but the inhospitable dirt where he hopes to raise a profitable flock of sheep adds to her complaints. Her adopted daughter Edith is the eyes and ears of the second section, as her isolation on the island, more than the weather, prompts her to attempt a dangerous escape. Several decades later, Elise Lester, a new bride, finds her island homestead threatened by the reach of World War II and her husband’s unpredictable moods.
The secondary system of these women’s imprisonment is the distortion and fissures the move to San Miguel introduces to their families; Marantha and Elise both find their husbands’ back-to-the-land fantasies include a level of domestic duty for which they were not prepared, while Edith’s dreams of being an actress are thwarted by her father’s need for a housekeeper. Lonely, days away from their family and friends, these women react to the encroachment of nature at home in distracted, sometimes repetitious ways. Elise’s motives for clinging to the island are the most satisfyingly complex, as her determination to preserve her marriage drives her to raise her children with a creativity that brings even Life magazine to her door.
Boyle’s designs on these women tend toward the gothic, but his treatment of them isn’t, thanks to the lush prose swathing the narrative like fog. The island receives the most fully realized portrait of all, without hoary personifications of the wind or animal infestations, as a place persistently rejecting its inhabitants—with what seems like a particular bloodthirstiness for nouveau farmers like the Waters and Lester families. As San Miguel cascades through history, later inhabitants like Elise learn about the features of the land, but its human histories are garbled and forgotten. The slow swell of Boyle’s depiction of San Miguel moves at a rhythm they can never discern.