I met Janice Clark at a Doubleday dinner in Boston back in June, and once I learned that her book had been edited by Alison Callahan, editor of The Night Circus, I knew I would read her book. The Rathbones is marketed as a novel that combines elements of Moby-Dick with an American Odyssey, and I definitely agree, as far as that goes. This is the story of a seafaring family, beginning with the tyrannical but brilliant patriarch, Moses Rathbone, and ending with the youngest generation, narrated by his great-great-great granddaughter, fifteen year old Mercy Rathbone.
Mercy tells a first person narrative, beginning with a brief history of her family. Her father has been whaling at sea for so many years that suitors have started coming 'round the family home to woo her mother. When Mercy hears a mysterious and haunting snippet of music wafting down from the widow's walk one night, she doesn't understand what she sees: her mother in congress with the Man In Blue, who chases her back down the widow's walk. Mercy's narrow escape from the Man In Blue marks the beginning of her journey in which she sails beyond the horizon with her uncle Mordecai. It also marks the beginning of her journey to learn and understand the peculiar history of her family.
Unlike the two classics from which Clark borrows most heavily, she writes not in a singular, straightforward narrative, but in two timelines that double back on each other until they run together. This, more than anything else, is what was unsuccessful for me as a reader. We get Mercy's current story interwoven with the stories of previous generations of Rathbones and while it is supposed to be epic in scope, this doubling back on the storytelling lends it a cramped and exasperating feel. There are high sea adventures, polygamy, wife-sharing, abductions, secrets uncovered, covenants betrayed, and hidden identities revealed, but by the time most of these things happened, I was already a little disconnected from the story.
That being said, this is a very solid debut novel, and I think it would feel magical for the right reader, though I am not that person. Beyond the obvious model of Homer's Odyssey, Clark clearly knows her ancient texts, interweaving elements of Greek mythology and tragedy in a deft manner, including multiple instances of deus ex machina and not a few fairy tale or fable-like tropes (fratricide, foundlings, or sentient crows, anybody?). In today's parlance, those are simply not my jam. I tend to prefer either straight-on fantasy elements or realism and not novels that straddle both worlds equally.
NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book, given to me at my request. It is available in the US from Doubleday. Whose insignia, incidentally, fits this book perfectly: