The novel opens in 1793 with ten year old motherless Tabitha (Tab) living in a coastal Carolina town with her father John, not too far from her grandfather, her mother's father, Asa. Tab has been allowed to run fairly wild without a mother to guide her. She is drawn to the sea and the ships that bob in the harbor. She explores tidal pools, swims out to a sandbar, and lazes in the sun. She asks her father for tales of his life with her mother, Helen, before she died in childbirth bringing forth Tab. That they eloped on a pirate ship and lived simply and happily until they had to come back to land and make a life for their coming child fascinates her no end. And these tales, hard as they are for John to articulate, are the only piece of her mother than Tab has. Although Tab is often unsupervised, she is precious to her father and she is the last of her grandfather's blood. When she's stricken with yellow fever, John and Asa disagree with how to save her. One trusting in God and the other a non-believer. In the end, John takes her onto a ship, the same way he took Helen so many years ago, desperate for the sea to work its magic on his small daughter.
And then the novel jumps back in time to when Helen, a motherless young woman herself, lived alone with her father, Asa. She was certain of her faith, quite devout, and strove to teach the word of God to the local slaves, presiding over Sunday services for them. She had her own slave, Moll, gifted to her by her father when she was a small child herself, but with whom she had a rather strange and complicated relationship, by turns distant or intensely close, uncaring or needy. In the final year of the Revolutionary War, she meets John, a soldier posted in Beaufort and prefers him to the more acceptable suitor whom her father has chosen. And so begins the tale that Tab so loved to hear.
The third part of the story returns to 1793, to John and Asa and to the slave Moll and her much adored son Davy. Moll has always loved Davy beyond the daughters who followed him and yet she has even less control over his destiny than John or Asa had over their daughters. Moll's love for Davy is desperate and deep despite the fact that she cannot keep him with her when John and Asa decide otherwise. And she is willing to risk all for love of him.
Each of the three sections of the novel focuses on a parent and child, the connection between them, the overwhelming love, and the ways in which a parent does not, perhaps cannot, know his or her child's heart. In all three cases there is an trace, sometimes faint and others times not so faint, of a possessiveness about that love, a feeling that the child belongs to the parent. And yet life proves this possessiveness to be ephemeral in all cases. The characters here are almost all adrift in life without a real course. They seem solitary even in their connections with each other. The writing is rich, beautiful, and fluid and the general feel of the novel is elegant, dreamy, and haunting right from the start. It is an overwhelmingly sad story of loss after loss and melancholy threads through all three parts of the tale. The three parts are not arranged chronologically, allowing Smith to use the middle portion of her triptych as a respite from the unexpected plot trajectory of the first part, allowing the reader to process that deliberate authorial choice before moving forward with the tale. An elegiac, lyrical story, it will hover in your consciousness a long time after you close the cover.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.