- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

By Joanna Scott
Little, Brown, $23.95, 288 pages

The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Award, a finalist for the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award and the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, Joanna Scott is not merely a promising writer, but a critically acclaimed one. Like a master potter, she is able to turn out one polished, well-wrought artifact after another. But her craftsmanship seems to lack the inner fire that would transform it into art.
"Tourmaline," her sixth novel, is set on the island of Elba. Immortalized in the palindrome "Able was I ere I saw Elba," this pleasant island off the coast of Italy was the defeated Napoleon's first place of exile, the base from which he staged the ill-fated comeback that led to his second and permanent banishment on the far more distant and inaccessible island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.
Murray Murdoch, the antihero of "Tourmaline," first saw Elba in the summer of 1944, when he was part of the American forces taking the island from the Germans. Here in 1956, he returns, with his wife and four young sons, on a quixotic quest to mine the eponymous semi-precious gemstones. For some reason, he persuades himself that he will make his fortune on Elba. To this end, he borrows money from his mother and uncles to travel there with his wife and family, first-class on an Italian luxury liner, and then to rent a villa, buy up land, and generally live, as is his wont, beyond his means.
Good-looking, optimistic, engaging and irresponsible, Murray is a man able to succeed at only one activity: self-sabotage. But this is not always apparent either to himself or to others.
Murray's wife, Claire, is more thoughtful, clearheaded and intelligent. She's a woman who reads, and not just anything: Among the books she gets through while the action of the novel is taking place are Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Marble Faun," Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" and Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." Yet although she sees her husband's shortcomings, she is very much in love with him and never seems to think of challenging his judgment.
Left largely to their own devices, the four Murdoch boys Patrick, Harry, Nat, and Ollie ranging from five to 10 years of age become a little tribe unto themselves, cheerfully exploring the island, looking for gems, and inventing their own private games and macaronic lingo.
The Murdochs gain entree to what might be called Elban society, thanks largely to the good offices of Francis Cape, an elderly British gentleman-scholar who is working on a never-to-be-completed project of his own, a book about Napoleon's sojourn on the island. Through Francis, the Murdochs meet the aristocratic Signora Nardi, whose ancestors befriended the exiled emperor during his time there, and the Signora's enigmatic adopted daughter Adriana.
When Adriana disappears mysteriously, a cloud of suspicion hovers over Murray. Even Claire wonders not whether her husband killed the girl, but if he might have been having an affair with her. But in the eyes of the children very little of this registers.
Their world may be contingent upon the adult world, but from their perspective, the island is an entirely delightful place where they are free to do pretty much whatever they choose.
In this book, the "facts" of the story the things the characters do or don't do are merely background, the framework over which the novelist has draped the gracefully flowing fabric of her novel. Ms. Scott is a gifted writer who has achieved real mastery of her craft. This is evident on a sentence-by-sentence level, as in this passage setting the mood for the moment when Claire first feels suspicious about her husband's relationship with the vanished girl:
"Guilt sounds like the crinkle of aluminum foil. The clank of a knife against the half-open lid of a tin can. A gas burner hissing without a flame. A cat clawing at a sofa's upholstery. Dry leaves blowing on a pavement. Scotch tape being crumpled into ball."
The craftsmanship extends to the novel's macrocosmic elements as well: its pacing, structure, and overall design. It opens and closes in the near-present, with the youngest Murdoch boy, Ollie, by this time a grown man, revisiting the island. Ollie's attempts to remember and recreate what happened on Elba in the mid-1950s, when he was only five, are juxtaposed with the recollections of his elderly widowed mother, who keeps trying to bring him back to the "facts" or, at least, the facts as she remembers them.
There's even a short section written from Murray's perspective or, rather, what the adult Ollie imagines would have been his father's perspective at the time. The author subtly mingles evocative, atmospheric, scene-painting prose with persistent questions and qualifications casting doubt on the reliability of memory, perception, and description.
Ollie is always willing to take account of the corrections his mother offers. "It would be easy," he declares, "to cast Signora Nardi as a type of woman familiar to readers of Victorian novels. She was stern, dusty, stuck in the past, repelled by the present, indifferent to the future. I find myself picturing her in a decrepit wedding dress with an ancient, cobwebbed feast laid out on the table.
But my mother insists that Signora Nardi was a woman you would think you could know at a glance, and then you'd realize you didn't know at all. Signora Nardi was not what she seemed. Not dusty. Not stern. And not loveless."
Claire, Murray, the Signora's daughter Adriana, and the English expatriate Francis Cape are portrayed with similar attentiveness and care. Yet although the author is exquisitely sensitive to the shifts that can occur in our sense of reality, this is not one of those novels that blithely abandons the quest for truth as a hopeless cause.
For all its acumen, its nuances, and its considerable beauty, however, there is a certain feeling of lassitude about this novel: Its characters, although lifelike, lack vitality. One believes in feckless Murray and his thoughtful wife, not to mention their four boisterous (though less clearly delineated) boys, the Nardis, and the slightly warped but ultimately decent Francis Cape.
But although they pique our interest, the author never quite manages to make them really matter as much as they should. One finishes this book with respect for Joanna Scott's intelligence, skill, and literary finesse, but not with any lasting attachment to the characters or their stories.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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