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Book Review - Tourmaline by Joanna Scott

Ere I saw Elba

Joanna Scott

Published by Little, Brown and Company

Review by W. R. Greer

In Joanna Scott's novel, Tourmaline, Murray Murdoch takes his wife and four sons to the island of Elba in 1956. What was ostensibly a vacation to an idyllic spot where Murray spent a month as a soldier in World War II turns out to be a treasure hunt, an ambitious search for success and making a name for himself. It's a trip that, at least for Murray and his wife Claire, goes wrong from the start. Using money borrowed from his mother, Murray takes his family first class on an ocean liner and the suicide of a man who befriended Claire is the first omen. Arriving in Genoa, Murray hadn't bothered to make any hotel reservations for his family and their luggage is stolen. After wiring his mother for more money and series of more unfortunate events, the family eventually makes its way to Elba where they rent a house and hire a maid and nanny.

Murray had either been unable or unwilling to hold a job back in the states. He knew Elba was an island rich in minerals, especially tourmaline, and his plan was to buy up land and mine for his treasure. He befriends an elderly English historian, Francis Cape, who had lived on the island for the last ten years. Francis helps with translations between Italian and English and introduces Murray to other inhabitants of the island, including Adriana Nardi. Adriana is a mysterious and bewitching young woman. Francis is already in love with her and Murray is falling for her fast. Her sudden disappearance after a short evening alone with Murray sends his already frazzled life into a tailspin. Rumors circulate on the island that "Signor Americano" must be involved in whatever tragedy had befallen the missing woman. Unable to prove his innocence, even to himself at times, and fearing that leaving would be an admittance of his guilt, the bungled trip becomes an emotional prison for Murray.

The narrator of the story is Murray's youngest son, Oliver, returning to Elba over 40 years later to find out as much as he can of their time on this island and write about it. He was only five when the family arrived in Elba, so his own memories are colored by his youth at the time. Some chapters are told by Claire, who corrects Oliver's recollections and wonders why he wants to relive an unhappy time in the family's life. To Oliver, though, Elba was a paradise. Murray was gone every day in search of treasure or hiding from the truth, Claire was withdrawn into herself, and the nanny would trust the boys not to go far from the house. The boys, left to their own devices, explored the island far and wide. The fought and played, invented games, and searched for treasure like their father. Unburdened by the company of adults, anything they found that could hold their attention for a while was a treasure, whether it was a moth or a spider or an unremarkable rock.

Joanna Scott tackles several themes with this novel. What makes a man a man? How you define success? What is truth when two people have different memories of the same events? Murray Murdoch is not a sympathetic character. He's weak, bumbling, incompetent, and fearful. One of the few happy moments of his life was the month he spent on Elba during the war, playing football on the beach with the other soldiers. So Murray's dream of wealth and success revolved around the one place where he thought he could be happy again. How weak is a man who chases his dream and moves his family to a faraway island to take a shot at making his mark in the world? Coming back after the war, however, the island is not the paradise he imagined. He's unable to speak the language or decipher their inscrutable laws pertaining to land ownership and deeds, and coupled with being a foreigner on a close-knit island, Murray lacked the talent and courage to make his dream come true. Speaking through Oliver, Joanna Scott remarks:

My tendency for exaggeration is a gift from my father. He was like so many others -- men and women, who, in resigning themselves to their fate, must forfeit their spirited ingenuity and become ordinary. Not even madness to liven their story. They are the ones left out of history, the explorers, inventors, artists, teachers, doctors, electricians, ophthalmologists, chimney sweeps and plumbers, bus drivers and farmers and lab assistants, etcetera, etcetera, who set out to accomplish something extraordinary, and after a series of setbacks just gave up.

In contrast, Francis Cape found his happiness on Elba. He came to write the definitive history of Napoleon's exile on the island. Despite all his research and examination of ancient records, he could never write more than a page or two of his book without starting over. Francis was happy with his role in life in a place he loved, even if he never finished his book. Then his happiness is threatened when Murray arrives and Francis worries about losing Adriana Nardi to him as well as his status on the island as the curious foreigner.

Joanna Scott does a wonderful job making Elba sound like a beautiful and entrancing island. This comes across most powerfully when Oliver tells of the boys' adventures, when they are thrilled to explore all that it offers and build the bonds and memories of brothers sharing the same ideal time and place. These passages of the book move quickly and you long to be one of the boys, reveling in the ignorance and innocence that childhood offers. When Oliver tries to write about his father, tries to get inside his father's skin to find out why he did what he did, the book falters at times. Sentences become choppy, conversations with his father are invented, and long paragraphs of questions go unanswered. It is as if the author is attempting a literary style to mimic Oliver's frustrated attempts to find answers that can never be found. Just as Francis Cape could never write the history of Napoleon, Oliver will never be successful writing the story of his father without making it up as he goes along.

Oliver can never write the truth about their time on Elba, because truth is relative to the people who experience it and the adjustments of memories over the years. Oliver, as well as the novel, sputters to the end with only the ability to write small scenes, some fact and others fanciful fiction. Taken in its entirety, though, this is an enjoyable novel that transports you to a different time and place and tantalizes you with its exotic locale and romance of a different era. In the end, we can choose to be like Oliver and his brothers and accept what is offered and enjoy our explorations of it, or to be like Murray and Claire and be unsatisfied for what it wasn't.

Copyright © 2002

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