Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Watery Part of the World

The Watery Part of the World
The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker, Algonquin Books, April 26, 2011

...this relatively short novel really did not move me
To my mind, this story brimmed with possibility. It promised a story spanning the time period of 1800 to present day on an Outer Bank Island. Taking the life of Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr who was lost off the Outer Banks and never again heard from, the author postulates that she survived tragedy at sea and built a life and had a family on the fictional island of Yaupon. In a parallel story 150 years later, two white women descendents of Burr live out the last days on the island with a black man, also a long time island resident. They are the only inhabitants of the island.

The story in the 1800s has lots of color. In the fictional account Burr is saved from a pirate attack because the pirate captain is convinced she is mad “touched by God”. Burr had been extremely well educated by her father and was thought to be the most well educated woman in the US at that time. Then she falls into a world where foraging for shipwrecked cargo is a more valued skill that reciting Shakespeare. Despite this she adapts and thrives on this island. She meets a former pirate and falls in love with him. Her strong will to live allows her to make a life for herself and her offspring on this island. She is a memorable character.

The 1950s story of the island residents, the two white sisters Whaley and Maggie, and Woodrow a black man descendent from a free African is really quite strange and hard to relate to. Talk about lives of quiet desperation, Thoreau must have had this crew in mind with that phrase. The elder sister Whaley, the more eccentric of the two is devoted to preserving her interpretation of the island’s history. Each year they are visited by anthropologists (called the Taperecorders). Whaley assumes an old island brogue and relates the history back to Theodosia leaving out any issues that would reflect poorly on the family. The younger sister unable to escape the island’s hold on her life mourns the loss of a love affair with a man who left the island. Woodrow also heavily drawn to life on this island is a remote character who in very understated ways expresses the frustration of the subservient black man in his relationship with these women. The relationships between and among these three characters is the central theme of this story; they have a strange, odd dependency among them. I found this second story somewhat dissatisfying in dealing with the race issue, while it is of great importance in their relationships it is never really tackled head on. I guess the other criticism I had of this second story was that the characters were all so passive and the island hold on them was so strong. While that is surely possible it is overwhelmingly sad to have lives wasted in this way.

So this relatively short (272 pages) novel really did not move me. I liked the section dealing with Theodosia and her adaption to life on the island. All of the prose relating to the island was good and gave a dreamy (perhaps watery?) feel to the story. Lastly I was left cold with the 1950s section.

I read a copy of this novel borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia


Zibilee said...

Though you didn't like this one, there is just something fascinating about the thought of three strange people living alone on an island in the 1950's to me. I can't put my finger on just what it is, but something about this book intrigues me, and now I want to read it. Of course, I will be remembering your comments when I do and tempering my reflections appropriately. Thanks for the wonderful review on what I can only call a bit of a strange book!

Elizabeth said...

Old Follower.

Book sounds interesting...great review.

Stopping by from Cym Lowell's Book Review Party.


Jenn of Frequent Reader, Infrequent Blogger said...

It sounds like a kind of confusing plot to follow when you reach the second half of the book.