COMPASS ROSE by John Casey
“…it was part of the same thing over and over, the sun heating the surface of the ocean, vapor rising into clouds and fog, blowing over the land, turning back into water and running back into the sea, carrying bits of earth, the earth made of cracked and crumbled rock and the dead matter of everything else once so busily alive.”
Review by Betsey Van HornВ (OCT 19, 2010)
In rugged South County, off the coast of Rhode Island, the rustic beauty of the salt marshes, creeks, rivers, and ocean provides the substance and domain of Casey’s follow-up/sequel to his 1989 National Book Award winner, Spartina. This book begins roughly where the other left off, circa 1989, and then segues to fourteen years later midway through the novel. It is the story of love and family, and the vicissitudes of six or less degrees of separation.
Middle-aged Dick had an affair with nubile Elsie (in Spartina), which resulted in baby Rose. Dick, the boat-builder and sea-lover, lives primarily out on the ocean. When he is landlocked, Dick stays in the house with his wife, May, and their two sons, Charlie and Tom. Dick and May have not quite resolved the pink elephant in the boat’s deck. May wants Rose to be part of their lives, and she hasn’t fully forgiven Dick. She is tormented about seeing Rose, and about not seeing Rose. How to accommodate the X-factor, Elsie? And the why oh Y-factor, Dick.
“May wondered how long she’d have to go on pulling thoughts out of her head. It seemed as endless as pulling rocks out of a field.”
Elsie is free-spirited and nature loving. A Natural Resources officer, she is euphemistically called “the warden of the Great Swamp.” Despite her affair with Dick, she is a sympathetic, strong, and enchanting character. She is feisty and warm, as seen through her nurturing devotion to the island’s aging doyenne, Miss Perry. And she still loves Dick.
“She [Elsie] looked at Dick’s face. She’d wanted him for the certainty of his fierce instincts; she’d put herself in the way of them. Now he was uncertain. Perhaps he was undone by seeing his daughter–perhaps he was undone by the trouble he was in.”
This tight-knit, incestuous Irish community, where almost everyone is related by blood or marriage, is a roaring and clattering collection of individuals that form an uneasy alliance of entanglements and estrangements. As Rose grows up, she bickers hotly with her mother; while Elsie is the butterfly, Rose is the butterfly out of the chrysalis.
But Rose is also the compass, or the “compass rose.” Casey uses this nautical term as a superb extended metaphor, whereby there are two rings–the outside ring denoting cardinal directions and the inner ring referring to magnetic cardinal directions. Rose’s positioning in the two families exemplifies the symbolic and directional purview of their bonds–to each other, to the island, and to the trajectory of their hearts.
I had to start this book twice. The stylized beginning has staccato sentences and bulleted names, initially confusing me and turning me off. However, it is short-lived, and Casey’s prose soon opens into a poetic and lyrical rhythm. The cadence is occasionally offbeat, but is uniquely exhilarating and provides a salty mood and atmosphere. The story is spicy, unpredictable and mouth-wateringly messy. The wily characters sizzle–from the dedication of Rose’s protectors, such as Mary Scanlon, the town’s chef and songbird, to Jack Aldrich, the town’s land-grabbing, acquisitive swine.
I felt like one of the residents of South County. John Casey is an assured storyteller whose spiky, nervy characters fly off the pages with pluck and spunk and longing. I highly recommend this for readers who love resonant, character-driven stories.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 7 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Knopf (October 19, 2010)|
|REVIEWER:||Betsey Van Horn|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on John Casey|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Another interesting book:
My Wife’s Affair by Nancy Woodruff
- American Romance (1977)
- Testimony and Demeanor (1979)
- Spartina (1989)
- The Half-life of Happiness (1990)
- Compass Rose (October 2010)