Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book review: The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker

Sometimes the past is another country. Other times, as in Michael Parker’s inventive recreation of Theodosia Burr Alston and her fictional descendants, the past casts such a large shadow on the present that it’s impossible to escape.

The historical Theodosia, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr, was lost at sea in 1813 after boarding a ship from South Carolina to New York. (Readers may recognize her as the tragic heroine of Anya Seton’s classic My Theodosia.) The Watery Part of the World picks up the frayed ends of her life story. In this version, she survives a pirate attack by feigning madness and takes shelter with a hermit on the Outer Banks. He’s the only man inclined to help her of his own free will.

On this remote barrier island off North Carolina’s coast, survival is precarious. Theo’s knowledge of Latin and Greek, and her extensive training in the social graces, proves useless in an environment where people rely on scavenging (or “progging,” in the delightful local lingo) for driftwood and other things that wash up on shore. A portrait of her long-ago self, the only item left from her former existence, symbolizes her proud history and the mission – restoring her father’s good name – that she can’t let herself forget.

In alternating sections set in 1970 and earlier, Parker skillfully delves into the inner lives of the island’s last remaining residents: two elderly sisters, Theo’s fifth-generation descendants, and the black man, Woodrow Thornton, who helps them with their household needs. His family has a longstanding tradition of service to theirs, a pattern he resents but follows anyway.

Whaley is stiff and proper, a silly pretension when there’s nobody around to impress. Her moody and passionate sister Maggie envisions herself as Virginia Dare, believing she’ll meet with disaster if she ever leaves her home. While Whaley reads about the curious outside world in newspaper ads, Maggie can’t forget her failed love affair with a younger man thirty years before.

Despite the 150-odd years separating them, the storyline glides smoothly between their time and Theo’s. In both eras, Parker periodically revisits the novel’s most decisive scenes, each time with more shocking impact.

In places, the text has an archaic syntax that reflects the modern trio’s circumstances, living isolated from the mainland for such a long time. Two anthropologists visit them every spring to record their peculiar dialect and the outlandish stories of island lore they choose to tell them – an act they partially put on for the outsiders’ benefit. Caught by fear and habit, Maggie wonders if she’ll ever be able to reveal their real story.

Dependent on one another for reasons they can’t explain, the black man and "his white women sisters" cling to their roles, the same ones held by their forebears, like they would to a lifeline. Parker writes of their complicated dilemmas with grace, care, and not a little empathy. Even with the deftness of the human characterizations, though, the wind-scoured, lonely island has the strongest and most steady presence. One knows it will be around long after everyone has gone.

The Watery Part of the World was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill on April 26th ($23.95, hardcover, 261pp).


  1. I'm hoping to go and see Parker at Quail Ridge Books this month. Can't wait to read this - your review really hooked me.

  2. I love the cover of this book so much -- so striking! Am dying to read it -- it seems so unique and unusual!

  3. This sounds absolutely amazing. And my library has it! Must place a hold...

  4. I love that quote about the past being another country, but I've never known who said it originally?

  5. It's from British writer L.P. Hartley, from his novel The Go-Between. Which is best known for that quote!

    The cover of this book is gorgeous - the colors, the layout, the font (I'm a sucker for great historical fonts).

    I'm jealous of your upcoming bookstore visit, BP. No authors ever travel out this way; it'd help if there were bookstores around here...

  6. This looks like SUCH a good book, although normally I get really annoyed stories where the past still has a choke-hold on the present and the characters desperately need to see a therapist or something so they can MOVE ON ALREADY. And this one will probably annoy me too, but I'm thinking I'll be so distracted by the rest of the book that I won't notice until it's too late to stop reading.

  7. I see I've lost a bunch of comments here. Hopefully they'll be back!

    This may be a little different than the usual scenario because it's based in history (three people were the last remaining residents of one of the NC barrier islands in 1970) and it's an entire way of life they'd be losing if they left. There were times, though, when I really wished that Maggie was able to break free of it to create a new life for herself.