Book Review: The Rathbones by Janice Clark (Doubleday; 384 pages; $26.95)
As summer slowly fades into fall, we sometimes yearn for something more in a novel, a story that invades our hearts and our souls, a tale that leaves us astounded. I always find myself turning to the sea this time of year. September is also the month in which I first read favorites like Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund and Galore by Michael Crummey, books with premises devoted wholly to the briny depths. Longing for cooler weather after a long, hot Southern summer may play a huge role in this inclination of mine, but I think it has more to do with the storyteller.
In her riveting and magical debut The Rathbones, Janice Clark stunningly intertwines Greek myth, Gothic elements, Moby Dick, coming of age, and maritime adventure to tell the epic saga of a once proud Connecticut whaling dynasty. The Rathbones is populated by unforgettable and powerful characters, none of whom dazzle more than Mercy, who, at fifteen years of age, sets off on a quest to find her missing father. Verity, Mercy’s mother, has spent seven years waiting for her husband, Benadam Gale, lost at sea. Clark draws parallels to Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope faithfully awaited the return of her husband Odysseus; however, Mercy knows her mother’s true amorous, treacherous nature. This unwelcome knowledge spurs Mercy to seek out her father, if she can find him. Mercy’s quest soon evolves into a voyage of discovery and identity.
Accompanied by her strange and frail uncle Mordecai, Mercy uncovers a dark and murky family history. Moses, the patriarch of the Rathbones, enjoyed the gift of second sight. As Clark writes, Moses “knew the beat of the sea, its quick pulse along the shore and the slow swing of the tides.” If he hunted in the woods or “walked too far away” from the water, “his breath went short and his limbs stiffened, and the sea pulled him back.” Moses was one with the water and with the whales he could sense swimming beneath the surface. He lacked only one thing, but it was crucial: a crew.
Moses developed a rather novel way to procure men: he would sire them. Like Greek gods who captured mortal women, the Rathbone men stole females of child-bearing age to produce sons to man the whale boats. Instead of “normal” names such as Benjamin, George, or Robert, Moses bestowed upon his sons appellations denoting their future duties like Harpooner, Bow-Oar, and First-Oar. Moses’s peculiar methods worked, and the family thrived; Moses “reigned for three decades, the undisputed monarch of his maritime realm.” His senses served Moses well, as he “knew before anyone else when the whales were coming, long before spouts showed on the horizon.” Clark writes the Rathbone men “lived on land as they did at sea, their native skills honed by ceaseless practice, working as one organism.” No other whaling family came close.
But it did not last. Later generations lost the link they shared with both the sea and the whale. The Rathbones became like stilt birds who lost their ability to fly once their basic needs were met on land. In chronicling the ups and downs of this mesmerizing family, Clark highlights the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century whaling era.
In The Rathbones, Clark may channel Edgar Allen Poe, Homer, and Herman Melville, but she puts her own unique and indelible spin on this truly remarkable novel. Clark offsets the Rathbone men and their whales with the Rathbone women, who are equally as formidable—women like the “Golden Wives,” sisters who were sold by their father, and Limpet, who Mercy and Mordecai find living in a cave. And then there is Verity, deeply flawed, seemingly mad, and keeper of secrets—easily one of Clark’s most complex characters.
The Rathbones is like one of those sea sirens of yore. Once you begin reading this enchanting story, you’re a goner. You won’t be able to resist the pull of Clark’s enticingly rich characters or her magnificent setting. With a novel like this, who’d even want to resist? Go ahead and jump in.