In the mind’s island

San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle, Bloomsbury £14.99/Viking $27.95, 367 pages

According to my unscientific research at literary festivals, where audiences are often curious about my favourite writers, T.C. Boyle excites a disconcertingly low level of name recognition in Britain. Even in his native US, Boyle doesn’t often seem to merit mention when the literary movers and shakers of our time are trotted out: Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, etc. Let’s redress this injustice.

Though I generally shy from flap-copy hyperbole of this sort, T.C. Boyle is by far and away one of the most inventive, adventurous and accomplished fiction writers in the US today. Born in 1948, he’s astonishingly prolific – now releasing his 14th novel after authoring nine short-story collections as well. He is geographically exploratory, with settings from his home state of California to Alaska; formally bold, having tried his hand at science fiction, fictionalised biography and the historical novel; and thematically avaricious, addressing himself to everything from illegal immigration to architecture to identity theft. Most of all, he is a mesmerising storyteller, which is magnificently on display in his latest, San Miguel.

The eponymous island lies off the coast of Santa Barbara. The westernmost dot in a four-isle archipelago, San Miguel is a deforested, wind-battered wilderness about seven miles long and up to three miles wide, in modern times a protected conservation area but during the span of this narrative nibbled to stubble by ravaging sheep. Readers often wonder where novelists get their ideas. Well, for Boyle, the Californian island of San Miguel was the idea.

The novel is divided into three sections, each titled with the name of a wonderfully wilful woman. In “Marantha”, set in the late 1800s, a domineering civil war veteran drags his consumptive wife to the primitive house on San Miguel to tend the sheep and harvest their wool, promising paradise and delivering anything but. Marantha comes to detest their filthy, mouse-infested home, the windblown sand, the relentless rain, the uncouth hired hands who arrive seasonally to shear the sheep, and their neighbourless isolation – expressing her disgust by denying her husband the pleasures of the marital bed as her health deteriorates apace.

In “Edith”, Marantha’s teenaged daughter vows to flee the godforsaken wasteland that sapped the life from her mother, though when Edith tries to run away while on the mainland her father hauls her right back to the barren island. Edith eventually discovers that sex, whose withdrawal her mother employed as punishment, can also be plied in a more positive manner and traded for escape.

In the novel’s final and fullest section, “Elise”, we fast-forward to 1930, when a far happier couple moves to San Miguel: Herbie, a first world war veteran whose ebullience is only occasionally punctuated by “the blues” – portents of more dangerous depressions to come – and his joyous, hardworking wife Elise, who has left behind a comfortable, prosperous life in upper New York State for the romantic gamble of sheep ranching on San Miguel, where to her astonishment she bears two daughters in her forties.

This is a dense, lushly detailed novel, and each of the three sections is rich with incident and populated with a cast of well-drawn side characters – although the main character in this novel is the island itself. What San Miguel is not is one of those fashionably “linked” story collections, but a cohesive, headlong tale with temporal scope.

As Boyle demonstrated in Drop City (2003), in which a busload of hippies founds a commune in Alaska and learns the real meaning of “cold”, he has a great feel for the physical brutalities of nature and the challenges of surviving in a hostile climate. As Boyle also demonstrated in The Women (2009), which is about the romances of Frank Lloyd Wright, he’s able to imbue his female characters with all the complexity, ferocity and personal power that too many male writers reserve for their male characters alone. In fact, few male writers do such a fine job of wholly inhabiting a woman’s mind in a range of historical periods.

And the prose? By necessity, all novelists specialise in misery and catastrophe but Boyle is unusually gifted at expressing contentment: “The days settled in. The sky arched high, crept low, the rain came and went, the wind blew from the north. She mixed infant formula on the stove, hung diapers out to dry. She cooked and cleaned and looked after her daughters and her husband. This was life, this was release and joy – not tedium, not tedium at all.”

He is also a genius of the tangible. Take this list of presents sent from strangers to San Miguel once Elise, Herbie and their daughters achieve national renown as “the Swiss Family Lester”: “There were Coleman lanterns, a butter churn, a pair of axe handles, a peanut butter jar of assorted screws, hand-knit mittens, sweaters and caps, a braided throw rug, a year’s supply of Wrigley’s gum.”

Otherwise, though I always read books with a pen for marking passages either exceptional or egregious, my copy of this novel is strangely unmarked. There were no egregious passages – not one weak sentence – while marking the exceptionally fine lines in San Miguel would have entailed underscoring the entire text.

Savvy newspaper readers often assume that writers all know each other and that reviewing is corrupt – that the raves are back-scratching, the pans revenge. So let’s be clear: I’ve never met T.C. Boyle. Besides, this isn’t a review, really. It’s a love letter.

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