Strong Characters Struggle on 'San Miguel'; FICTION - BOOKS

Article excerpt

"San Miguel" is T.C. Boyle's second straight novel set on the channel islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. The two books are nothing alike, though - except, perhaps, in the strength of their characters and the power of Boyle's rolling prose.

The first, "When the Killing's Done," published last year, is a richly peopled, notably up-to-date satire about two competing visions of how far man should go in restoring a defiled island ecology.

The new book is a much more sober if engaging historical look at how the physically and psychologically demanding life on the island named San Miguel affected the lives and the interactions of two small families who settled there at two different times - at the end of the Gilded Age and at the beginning of the Great Depression.

The intensely descriptive novel is based in part on family diaries and memoirs, and at times reads like a well-researched New Yorker article. Some readers may miss Boyle's mordant wit, less in evidence (or more subtly rendered) here than in his last few books, but the stories he tells are absorbing, not because they are extraordinarily eventful but because they reveal so much about the human beings involved.

"San Miguel," at least in part, deals with the themes suggested by a well-known line of Robert Frost: "The land was ours before we were the land's." Although it is told in the third-person, it focuses on (and inhabits the minds of) three women, all brought to the island by men, each reacting to the rock-bound landscape in their own ways.

The first woman is 38-year-old Marantha Waters, who suffers from what was then called "consumption" - tuberculosis - and regularly coughs up blood. More comfortable in the drawing rooms of San Francisco than in "a place so remote and wild it might as well have been on the far side of the world," she was been lured to the remote island and its rugged sheep ranch by her husband Will, a willful man indeed. She was hoping for sunlight and warmth and "virginal air," but San Miguel is the unprotected westernmost of the channel islands. The air may be virginal, but it is also cold and damp and fast-moving, as winds blow unhindered across thousands of miles of waves.

Marantha wades ashore in her long skirts and high-button boots on New Year's Day 1888. She is appalled when she walks up a long hill and first sees the ramshackle, moldy, mice-ridden shack she is expected to turn into a home for herself, her husband, their flighty 14-year-old stepdaughter Edith and a servant girl named Ida. The wooden walls leak wind, the house stinks of sheep, and the outhouse is so far away you can't even see it from the front door on a foggy day. …