Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family - fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amid a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love.
Drawn to the ocean, 10-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father's stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife, Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her.
Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her 10th birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father's wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.
In this elegant, evocative, and haunting debut, Katy Simpson Smith captures the singular love between parent and child, the devastation of love lost, and the lonely paths we travel in the name of renewal.
©2014 Katy Simpson Smith (P)2014 HarperCollins Publishers
With all the advanced hype for this book, I was expecting something more sweeping and detailed than this--more like The Goldfinch or The Signature of All Things. I'd pre-ordered so I didn't know it was only 7.5 hours, which, of course, means this a much smaller, tighter novel--despite it's 30+ year timespan and historical setting.
Even so, I assumed it would at least grab me from the beginning, which it definitely didn't.
Yes, the prose is arresting and interesting and full of beautiful phrases, but Edoardo Ballerini's almost singsong pronouncement of every sentence of part 1 (which is almost all narration and inner monologue) made the writing sound almost ridiculously pretentious at times. But maybe I was just feeling a little duped by all the press surrounding this debut novel.
Or maybe it just took me a while to get into the rhythm of the book.
Whatever the reason, once I started part 2 (there are 3 parts) I was hooked. And once Ballerini got some dialogue and deeper character development to sink his teeth into, he was excellent. And although the book is about grief and suffering, it--like all really good fiction--ultimately makes you feel closer to what it means to be alive and human, if that makes sense.
As for the historical aspect, the Revolutionary War setting is more or less just background to what amounts to a story about the personal interactions between a handful of people in that place at that time. The few period details that are included are meticulously chosen and never gratuitous, but there are nonetheless some nice history-nerd-worthy passages, particularly regarding textiles: bolts of silk with floral vine patterns, a packet of yellow thread, and women at a soldier's tea reflexively smoothing their stomachers.
If I had to compare this with another novel, I would say it's reminiscent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Different war and different type of plot (Cold Mountain is more of a quest/journey thing) but similar elegant writing styles that evoke a very specific region and place in American history, as well as equally memorable characters.
As usual, Edoardo Ballerini interprets the characters so well, he elevates a fairly good book to a level of excellence.
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