Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman

Mary Bayly is dying. She is dying quickly and painfully. And she has no close family to whom to leave her ancestral plantation, Mason's Retreat. She's determined that this land, which may or may not carry a curse, needs to go to a Mason (Mary's own mother was a Mason) and so she has searched out the descendants closest to the original immigrant owner and intends to interview them to determine which should be left the gift and burden that is Mason's Retreat. Edward Mason is one of the two relatives and he has come down to the plantation on the banks of the Chester River in Maryland intending to meet and charm Miss Mary, have the land assured him, and be back in his office in a few hours. What he doesn't count on is an extended tour of the property, the teasing out of the ghosts that still inhabit the land, and the whole truth of the Mason and Bayly clans as they struggled with their own visions of what Mason's Retreat is, a dairy being only the latest incarnation per Miss Mary's ideas. Although the novel takes place in one day, overseer Mr. French tells Edward Mason, who has already been recognized as morally small by Mary, the tale of Mason's Retreat over many years, starting on the eve of the Civil War and ending in 1923, the present day of the novel.

Mary's grandfather, Duke Mason, seeing what the stirrings of war were blowing his way, chose to sell his slaves further down south rather than lose their value to the war, tearing families apart and it is perhaps this act that scarred the land, imbuing it with a curse. It certainly scarred Mary's mother, Ophelia, who spent her adult life running from her heritage. But it was her luck to marry a man, Wyatt Bayly, who had a passion for the land and who strove mightily to turn Mason's Retreat into acres upon acres of peaches, carefully tending trees and learning all the science behind their cultivation. As his vision of orchards stretching down the banks of the river blossomed into reality, his family shattered and broke into pieces that only ever maintained a polite distance from then on out. Ophelia took Mary to Baltimore to live and left her young son Thomas in Wyatt's care.

Thomas and his best friend, a young black boy named Randall, ran around the plantation almost like feral creatures. They were so close as children that they were never referred to individually. And trailing them, sneaking behind them always was Randall's younger sister Beal, a simply striking child who would grow into a beautiful young woman. When Wyatt Bayly stopped to notice that his oft forgotten son needed some structure and schooling, he hired a tutor to educate Thomas offering to include Randall in this school for two to make the loss of freedom more palatable to Thomas as his intended heir. But Randall turned out to be the smarter, more intuitive, and better student of the two. This, coupled with Thomas' growing interest in Beal (a mutual interest actually) drove a wedge between the boys as they grew into men. And as the peach trees and the land of Mason's Retreat itself came ever closer to disaster, so too did the lives of these three so intimately entwined since childhood. Meanwhile Mary led her own life between France and Baltimore, although always hewing back towards Mason's Retreat. She participated in her mother's search for a husband for herself until forced by circumstances to sacrifice all she is supposed to desire and to take up the reins of her ultimately inescapable heritage.

The writing here is lush and descriptive but sometimes there's altogether too much of this normally good thing. The land overtakes the story, standing out far beyond the frankly rather colorless characters. The story is told very distantly, making it hard to get engaged in it as it unfolds, perhaps because it is being recounted to a disinterested outsider. Although I really wanted to like it, the slow pace and lengthy exposition made this one a trudge for me. The themes of racism, love, religion, and the challenge of the land seemed as if they deserved a more powerful vehicle. Neither the slight mystery of the boy's body found on the farm and mentioned in passing several times before the narrative caught up to the actual tale nor the draw of forbidden interracial love could keep my attention from wandering as I set this down repeatedly throughout my reading of it. Lyrical and yet flat, this one just wasn't for me.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.


  1. This sounds like a novel I might like, despite its flaws. The themes and historical setting intrigue me. Thank you for the well crafted, honest review!

  2. I am not familiar with book, but think it might have potential for me. Thanks for blogging about it.


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