Thursday, August 17, 2006

Island in a Storm of History: The Novels of Katherine Towler

When John Barth gives the cover blurb to a novel, I sit up and pay attention -- even though it's not in my usual leisure field of mysteries. So I took up the two novels by Katherine Towler, SNOW ISLAND and EVENING FERRY, to discover what this view of New England looked like.

Towler set out to capture life on an island off the coast of Rhode Island, through a century of wars and recovery, and through the lives of the people in the timeless landscape governed by time, tide, and weather. Her first attempt was through linked short stories, and she got stuck, stalled. When she took her 20 years of writing experience and applied the skills and passion instead to a set of three linked novels (the third one is in progress), the form worked much better. Reader beware: The novels are not true sequels. Yet their relationship, like the characters in them, enfolds secrets and discovery in an insistent dance.

Determined to portray the effects of war, Towler took SNOW ISLAND into the buildup to World War II; explored the nature of the home front during the Vietnam War in EVENING FERRY; and says her third novel, set in the 1990s, also involves war (I presume in the Persian Gulf).

She's a compelling speaker. She said this evening of the first book, "If I'd been in my right mind, I never would have started to write a story that takes place before my own birth, but not so far in the past that other people couldn't correct me!" Most often she gets corrected on relatively small points of history; she did years of research for the books, including living for a while on Prudence Island (fictionalized in the books but recognizable geographically), and learning enough about a Model T Ford to be able to guide her character through driving one.

But she pushes against the term "historical novel," saying that she wanted the characters, rather than the research, to lead her in writing. She notes, "The art, I think,is in making the book historically accurate without letting the research show."

I enjoyed this diversion out of the usual Kingdom Books waters. Moreover, I suspect I'll be thinking about Towler's points as I return to, say, the mysteries of Charles Todd. Plot, character, plot, character, plot, character. Need I say more?

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