- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Jan. 31, 1953, Canvey Island, which lies below sea level in the Thames River estuary, was devastated by a fierce storm which claimed the lives of 58 islanders. British author, filmmaker and theater director James Runcie begins his new novel, Canvey Island (Other Press, $13.95, 312 pages), in the midst of the rising floodwaters. Nine-year old Martin has just fallen asleep when his mother, Lily, awakens him and they set out to flee to higher ground. Dad Len is out dancing with Lily’s sister, Violet.

Lily’s foot gets caught in debris beneath the rising water and she urges her son to go on without her. Martin is saved; Lily drowns. Haunted by responsibility for his mother’s death, Martin dedicates his life to understanding and controlling water by becoming a water engineer.

“Canvey Island” is told through the voices of Martin; Linda, the local girl with whom he falls in love; Martin’s wife, Claire, an anti-war activist; Martin’s father; vulgar, fun-loving Aunt Vi whose love for Martin’s father runs deep; and Vi’s husband, a badly shellshocked veteran of World War II.

These distinct voices give life and complexity to a beautifully told tale of a young man seeking fulfillment, of his happy marriage and fatherhood and of his adulterous yearning for the love of his youth. Like all lives, even the seemingly simple, straightforward ones, these are filled with complex emotions and loyalties: Len and Violet’s lasting intimate relationship; Claire’s dedication and involvement in the British anti-war movement; Linda’s pain, loss and ultimate contentment; and Martin’s own growth into maturity.

There is a strong sense of place in Mr. Runcie’s writing and an elegant cadence to his use of language. Returning from his father’s funeral on the island, torn between his feelings for Linda and Claire, Martin “walked back along the seafront and watched the last of the swallows gather over the swing of the sea. The smell of the island hit [him] once more, of sugar, and sewage, petrol and salt winds. … [He] waited for the silvered surface of the sea to darken with the last of the light, its turbulence calmed, the moon rising.”

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The “other” of David Guterson’s The Other (Knopf, $14.95, 256 pages) is John William Barry, a rich, privileged but neglected boy, spiritually and emotionally alienated from his family and his surroundings. In this novel, Mr. Guterson, the author of “Snow Falling on Cedars,” tells the story of the friendship between John William and Neil Countryman. The book is rich in detail and vivid in depiction of the northern Washington State landscape, the beauty and wildness of the mountains, and the bleak landscape of John William’s neglected heart and soul.

John William’s father, Rand, is wealthy and detached; his mother, Ginnie is beautiful, narcisstic and given to bouts of insanity. Neil comes from a blue-collar Irish background. The boys meet at school at age 16 and are drawn to one another because they both love the beautiful, rugged backcountry outside Seattle. John William brings Neil into a world of tempting death. They hike impassable mountain trails and ridges, always close to the literal and figurative edge.

The two remain close in spirit although not in lifestyles as they mature: Neil goes to college, gets a job and chooses love and marriage; he opts “to embrace this world — the world my friend hated, and suffer it consciously for its compensations”; John William drops out, preferring to live in the wilderness, ultimately to disappear completely. Only Neil knows where he is and continues to visit him, bringing supplies to his mountain retreat, “[t]here was this loyalty [he] felt, however strange.”

There is much of “Into the Wild” in this story of the quest of a middle-class youth choosing to brave the great outdoors alone. But unlike the true-life Christopher McCandless, John William is not seeking to find himself and ultimately return to civilization; he chooses to throw away his talents and his brief romance and to alienate himself permanently from the world he was born into. Nor does he brave the wild alone for he relies on Neil to bring him necessary supplies. Neil thinks of his friend as “someone who followed through, and then I’m glad not to have followed through, to still be breathing, to still be here with people, to still be walking in the mountains, and to still be uncertain. …”

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In Songs for the Missing, (Knopf, $25.95, 287 pages) Stewart O’Nan tells the story of a young girl who disappears just as she is about to leave for college, and the effect her disappearance has on her family, friends and the small Ohio town where she lives. This is a dark tale about coping with a wrenching loss and how the impossible becomes not only possible, but acceptable. There are flashes of humor and incisive characters in this fine novel.

It is the end of a hot, dry summer. Kim, her friends, Nina and Elise, and her boyfriend J.P. work and play before their departure for college in September. Kim loves her town, but “the dream of leaving was coming true — with her family’s blessing, their very highest hopes. She could not regret it. She could only be grateful.” One afternoon, on her way to her summer job, Kim disappears.

When the police appear not to be pursuing the case properly, mother Fran mobilizes friends and sets about printing and distributing fliers; she goes on television and the radio appealing to anyone with any information about her lost child. Father Ed, a successful automobile salesman, mobilizes friends and neighbors on daylong searches in fields, on roads, along the lake. Little sister Lindsay retreats to her bedroom in unhappy silence. They are stunned to find out that Kim’s friends have withheld some information about Kim from the detective investigating the case.

As time goes by, relationships change. Ed and Fran find a new sexual complicity in their loss, combining fear and hope; a marriage gone stale takes on new life. Lindsay, in her loneliness, turns to her sister’s boyfriend, J.P., while J.P. finds himself attracted to Kim’s best friend, Nina. A memorial service held for Kim is only a partial catharsis.

Ultimately, Kim’s fate is revealed, but what actually happened remains a mystery. For Ed and Fran, with knowledge comes relief. For Lindsay, now grown and living in Chicago, knowledge is freedom.

There is sensitivity but no sentimentality to Stewart O’Nan treatment of his characters. They are real, in their selfishness but also in their pain, fear and unhappiness. Life goes on, no matter what. “Songs for the Missing” is a cantata of human voices, each with his and her melody from a mournful dirge to a joyful hymn in the promise of the future.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.


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