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San Miguel - A novel by T.C. Boyle

"They all sat there for a moment and thought about that, how far out of the sphere of things you'd have to go, geographically and spiritually both, to be safe, truly safe. If it was possible even." 


San Miguel
I read it everywhere and I really loved the
mystical cover, telling a story all of its own 
To get away from the dangers of life could be one reason to move to an isolated island off the coast of California, hoping to live an independent and good life, far way from society and its corrupting effects. Only the island, which the heroines and heroes of T.C. Boyles San Miguel, go to, never seems not dangerous. Fog and rain and cold seem to be constantly, while sun and warmth are greeted as rare visitors. The kind of threat lingering in every corner of the story, is sometimes wild and open, and sometimes hidden, simply shading the story and its background. Reason enough for me to choose a different island if I should ever think about getting away I would much rather go to, say: Formentera.
But, if you want to read a truly good story, one about love, an island, war and the traumas it leaves, the dreams of regular people, shattered, almost fulfilled, fulfilled, to live a better life, an independent life, self-determined and free, I would highly recommend San Miguel.
T.C. Boyle is and always has been, an outstanding story teller. His former books, World's End or Water Music, are among my alltime favourites, are pretty much all very good. In San Miguel there is not a second of boredom throughout the entire read. Though he goes through great lengthes to describe boredom, or rather, makes us feel it. He is a master of "don't show, tell", which might be one of his secrets, with which he draws the reader right into his stories.
The book is about two different families who try their fortune on the island of San Miguel. 
The Waters family goes there in the 1880s, with a mother suffering of consumption, having given her last money to the father to fullfill his dream of an independent and self-determined life. Despite her hope, that he will lead her the right way and that it will be warm on the island, and therefor becoming to her health, the climate is damp and cool and she ultimately gets sicker and sicker, far away from any doctor or hospital, left to the boats, hitting their island randomly, nothing to be counted on. 
So they have to leave the island again. But her husband, a traumatized veteran of the Civil War, wants to go back and forces their daughter Edith to come with him. No fun, I tell you only so much. Read the story and you'll see.

The second family, the Lesters, come there during the 1930s and lead a wonderful yet simple life for the longest time. Herbie is also a traumatized war veteran (WW I), Elise, his wife though, is strong, willing and capable to share his dream and the occuring hardships for the longest time. They have two daughters. Far away from the mainland,  things, that throw the world into a crises, like The Depression, hardly have meaning for them. They feel safe and away. But then WW II comes and with it two soldiers to guard them and the island against the Japanese, and the story takes a new tragic course....

In the end, you might say, this book is among many other things, about war and what it does to people, how the wounds of veterans shape the lifes of everybody around them.  But it is also about the island and its landscape, its animals and climate. The island is almost like one of the main characters. 
T.C. Boyle is a master of suspension. Not for a second was I able to relax thouroughly, because on every other page there was a sign for something about to happen, which didn't happen for pages over pages, sometimes never at all happend, or happened 200 pages later even worse, than I could have imagined it in my most vivid nightmares. He created an atmosphere throughout the entire book, in which I, the reader, was constantly a little tense, but in a good sense (after all, it was not me being on that damm island with one or the other somewhat crazy husband, thank GOD) with anticipation of what could possibly happen next. And I always wanted to know what it was and it was really hard, to put the book down. I was reading, wherever possible: while waiting for the spaghetti water to boil (yes, I cook spaghettis about 3 times a week, I love it, my kids start to think I am not creative, but I do create a different sauce every time, I swear!!). I read  on the underground, even when I only take it for three stations and don't even have real time to sit down, let alone glasses with which I CAN read underground (but thank you for asking, I managed o.k.) I read at the station, waiting for the underground, or at night, when I was supposed to sleep and of course in line at the post office. You name it! I read everywhere. 
Now I am finished and I've decided, I will eventually read his The Women. But first of all I am going to get myself prepared for Lisbon. So I am now reading Pessoa! I also am reading one of my favourite books again Nighttrain to Lisbon. By the way,  also watched the film recently and must say, it wasn't as bad as I had expected after all those mean reviews last year. Truth is though, at least in my opinion: it is not a great movie, just o.k.
Enjoy spring and look for a nice, blossoming cherry tree to read under!!


© Susanne Becker

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