Musings and photographs from a man in a little house by a river, on a little island at the bottom of the world.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Blue Room Book Review - TC Boyle - San Miguel

San Miguel, the setting for the Boylster's latest, is an island. Have a look at the author’s portrait inside the back cover of this tome, and, dear reader, you will see why your humble scribe calls him the Boylster. What a dude! As I read this book it seemed to lead me to conjure up all those 'islands in the stream' of my life. Of course, my whole existence is an island experience. I never thought I would see out my days contentedly on this exquisite place, surrounded by the southern seas. I always felt the my latter life would be, as Graeme Connors signature song suggests, one of 'moving a little further north each year,' preferably up the littoral of Mangoland. Thanks to a wonderful woman, and her perfectly imperfect small abode by a river, that hasn't eventuated. My island is far bigger than the one TC writes of, as is that tropical one I long to return to, an island where beauty abounded everywhere one looked - the women, the kids, the paddy fields, the beaches and, best of all, the smiles. But again, Bali is far bigger, as well, than San Miguel, off the Californian coast.

As my reading of the book was nearing its termination, out comes the Weekend Australian with a 'special' on islands off the Australian Coast. Now these were more like it, these were more akin to the dimensions of Boyle's decidedly non-paradisiacal island. The ‘Oz’ for me is a Saturday ritual, and its magazine section featured Rottnest (a lovely piece by Robert Drewe), North Stradbroke, the Tiwis, the Cocos(Keeling), and culminating with Tasmania. No, not the big island itself; but some of the off shore component parts. Those noted were windswept King; the island of tears in Flinders; Maria, with its eclectic history; and the one I adore, Bruny. I guess the one featured most resembling San Mig would be Schouten, off the East Coast's Freycinet Peninsula, now deserted, but with a history akin to TC's speck in the sea. Today, Three Hummock and Hunter off the North West tip would most equate. But the place I couldn't get out of my mind as I happily ploughed my way through this terrific tale was much, much smaller than all of these, and than San Miguel to boot. And it was an old photo, an image of a residence that did it. The two sand blasted homesteads, as featured in Boyle's diptych of a tale, were almost characters in themselves, so vital were they to the island survival of the Lesters and the Waters.

The Iron Pot is a tiny, tiny piece of rock where Storm Bay transforms into the entrance to the Derwent estuary. It has room for a lighthouse, the first or second structure of its type in Australia, depending on definition, and the double story keeper's house. I suppose the reason it stuck in my mind was that keeper's quarters looked so incongruous in size to its small knob of land, surrounded by sea. As well, if you look carefully, dear reader, you can see people in this old photograph. Have a look below – does it not all seem out of scale; out of place to you as well? Anyway, when I imagined Boyle's two dwellings, this is the place I saw in my mind. Once the book was satisfactorily completed it was off to the ether I went. Perhaps I should have been looking for the gen on San Mig, but what the book did was twig my fancy about the Iron Pot. We know what it was like living on Boyle's island, but I was interested in those people on the tiny Tasmanian islet - what was it like living out there? I suspect it was not as isolated a station as the Californian island, for Hobart was just up river, and it was possible to decamp at any time with the amount of shipping going by.. The light had been 'manned' since the early days of settlement, with two convicts and an overseer the first permanent residents; living in tents – and Storm Bay does live up to its name! Can you imagine the hardship? In 1862 it became the site of the world's briefest gold rush. One Saturday news spread around the taverns of Hobart Town that the keeper of the light had found some 'colour' in a seam of quartz on his rocky outcrop. In a town economically suffering from, and being depopulated by, the rushes on the mainland, this was hearty news indeed and two hundred souls rushed, by any means available, down to the Iron Pot. By Sunday it was ascertained there was no more gold to be had other than the keeper's, and by the start of a new week they were all home, snug, if miffed, back in the city.

The Pot’s living quarters were constructed in 1885, and survived one destructive maelstrom after another until demolition in 1921. In this year the light was automated and its human occupants decommissioned. Is he in the old photo of my mind, Robert Roberts, who fathered of the only child born on the island – Essie Margaret? In my bones I know there is a good story there in that intriguing image. Details on-line are scant, but I know there's a book to be had on the history of the Iron Pot, and I will seek it out – that is my intention. 

But let us return to the Boylster's tome. It is a very fine rendering from man who, in his wordsmithery, is the consummate yarn spinner. The initial section deals with the first family, the Lesters, followed by one centring on their headstrong, wilful and very bored, put upon daughter, Edith. This made for sublime reading. San Miguel was no starveacre place; a decent living could be made, but the place was not without its vicissitudes when Marantha, and her husband, the Captain – a Civil War vet – lived there. Marantha was terminally ill, and the happenings on the island, such as they were, are related from her point of view. He was a driven man, answering to his demons, determined to succeed regardless of the cost, human or otherwise.

Coming along much later, there were not so many privations for the Waters, and for a while, till Pearl Harbour takes the focus away, they achieve a notoriety of sorts for their hermit like existence. Herbie is what we would now term as bipolar, but wife Marianne loved her life, and belated motherhood, on the island. Her two female predecessors loathed their incarceration. The only weakness, I felt, in the whole book was the lack of a substantial linkage between the families. A minor character, Jimmy, living all his years on San Mig, or thereabouts, was a teenage farm hand for the Lesters, and an ageing sheep herder for the Waters. He provides our answers as to what became of Edith – fame with carpetbaggery thrown in, it seems – but the final third seemed too much an anticlimax. Perhaps the narrative needed not a change in dynasty. Boyle would no doubt counter that the story is the island, rather than the people inhabiting it.

But, being the Boylster, his language sings like a San Miguel fall breeze, and the 'busy tedium' of island life, in his hands, is as compelling as a Hitchcockian opus. His command of the vernacular is spectacular as he scours for the perfect word; the perfect phrase. I am an avid devotee, always in awe. I will construct a story from my research on the Iron Pot in due course, but it will be a few pages of scribblings compared to his 350 plus on his Pacific coast location. But I am sure on that wind basted rock at the mouth of the Derwent there are people, as pictured, who have stories to tell too - and I will have a go at some form of imagining. I am not a great author like Boyle – but the pleasure of spinning a cogent tale resides deep inside me, just as, no doubt, it does for the Boylster! 

TC Boyle's web page =

1 comment:

  1. What a great review! And I MUST Get to Bruny one day soon - we will take the Tiger together when we're back down south xxx