Literary novels (and this is most definitely one) are not easily assimilated. It often takes time to absorb a beautifully crafted, well-structured and meaningful work of fiction. Literary novels cannot be reduced to a simple description so whatever professional reviewers have concocted as a tagline for Janice Clarke's debut novel The Rathbones will inevitably be misleading. This is not Moby Dick meets Homer's The Odyssey and readers expecting anything resembling such a strange hybrid will be disappointed. What The Rathbones is most akin to, in my mind at least, is Stanislaw Lem's psychological-fantasy-symbolist novel Solaris in which a strange living sea on another world holds a mirror up to the lives of its human protagonists. This is as close to a description of the complexity and depth of The Rathbones as I am capable of making.
There are a few distasteful events in the novel that may disturb some readers. Life is filled with distasteful events. Readers should not confuse descriptions of what people are capable of inflicting on each other and themselves with approbation of those events. The Rathbones is an honest novel and should be applauded for its truthfulness. But the novel does not focus on the unsavory. If anything, The Rathbones is fixated on the magical sphere that surrounds us: the strangeness, the beauty and some of the horror that makes up the world and our uncertain role in it. To the extent that there is an undertone of magic in the novel, albeit magic of the sea and the elements, The Rathbones can be called a novel of "magical realism". Sophisticated readers who enjoy writers like Charles de Lint will probably feel at home here. The Rathbones is a superb first novel and I am eagerly awaiting further work by author Janice Clark.
Brief summary and review, no spoilers.
This book tells the story of the mysterious Rathbone family and is told through different narrators at different points in time. The oldest narrator is Moses Rathbone who as a young boy in 1761 started the families obsession with whaling off of Naiwayonk, Connecticut.
Our main protagonist is young Mercy Rathbone and her story starts out 1859 as she is watching her mother Verity pacing upstairs awaiting the return of her papa - who has been away almost 10 long years at sea. Is the father dead? And what has happened to him?
Mercy's mother seems very cold and distant from her daughter and when something happens that drives Mercy from the house, she goes on a sea voyage with her cousin Mordecai - an odd man who has lived in the attic. During this voyage, Mercy will gradually learn her family's history and as she does so, she continually updates a family tree. By the end of this strange yet fascinating novel, the tree is complete.
This is a very odd book to review and this was a very different reading experience for me. The book is not told in the usual straight narrative form and the story winds back and forth in time and is told in fantastical and wildly descriptive ways. Reminiscent of the Odyssey on many levels, Mercy witnesses and experiences things not from this world - yet by the time you finish you realize you have read a story about very real human trials and tribulations.
When I first started the book, I wasn't sure it was my cuppa. I usually don't like mystical or fantastical reads unless the story is pretty straightforward. In fact about 1/3 through I didn't think I was going to care for it that much. But I can tell you that I read this book in two sittings and that by the time I turned the last page I realized how special it was. Terrific story with a wonderful denouement.
on September 9, 2013
It was an ad in the New York Times Book Review that caught my attention and prompted me to read The Rathbones. Being an avid reader of mysteries, cookbooks and travelogues, the first few pages were a stretch for me.... but, Ms. Clark's writing was such that I had to keep reading. In fact, the storyline haunted me when I was forced to break due to commitments. I kept wondering, "Where is she (Ms. Clark) going with this?"
Reviewers before me have related enough of the storyline, that I see no need for this review to be repetitive. However, I found this book to be refreshingly unique with the most visual prose that I have encountered in a very, long time. Maybe it's because I'm from the eastern shore, but to read about all the types of sails, to feel the rolling of the water, to see the sands, shells, seaweed and stars pricking the skies, and all the various sea life just filled a void that I hadn't known existed.
And, the gowns that the women wore! Their colors, as they related to nature, I found to be exceptionally poetic.
Certainly, there are references to Moby Dick and Homer's The Odyssey, but I kept thinking of Pai, who seeks the whales, in 'Whale Rider'. Oh, to know what it is to be in the same waters and ride with such a mammal!
Initially, reading about the breeding of Rathbones to create crews, was a bit shocking and unsettling. But then, I began to understood the innocence, due to the ignorance of right from wrong, and the consequences of single-focusness and being sheltered.
The plot carried me along its watery journey to a very-satisfying conclusion. 'The Rathbones' is creative writing at its best, and I am very pleased to have read it. In the right hands, The Rathbones would make a visually stunning film.
on September 11, 2013
This is one of the best novels I've read in the past year ... it's part historical novel, allegory, gothic fable, family saga and fictional memoir. It is Janice Clark's first book and she is a rare talent, one I'll be watching.
Without giving too much away, the story of The Rathbone family is set in the mid nineteenth century, on the sea faring coast of Connecticut. The males of the family are whalers, the progeny of Moses Rathbone. There are disturbing aspects to the family history, but handled with a matter of fact non sensational prose. The full weight of the secrets dawn slowly... peeled back bit by bit from the shrouds of time and distance as if by the crow which flits and flies in and out of the story, on and off the shoulder of Mercy, our young heroine. The crow serves as an allegorical device, always there, sometimes helpful and protective, sometimes threatening, but like the sea and whales, mute testimony to the power and pull of heritage, memory and destiny.
The book reminded me a bit of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, in the blending of reality and fantasy. Which is which? Does it matter? Aren't all novels fantastical to one degree or another?
Highly recommended... a terrific book. Perhaps I should mention that while Mercy, the main protagonist of the story is a young girl, this is not a book for youngsters, ie. the YA audience.
The Rathbones is a gothic tale about the mystery of the Rathbone family, once a large and prosperous whaling clan. Mercy, a fifteen year old girl is in the Rathbone mansion which has suffered from decay. It is located on the sea in Connecticut and she has never left it. Her father has been on a whaling mission for ten years and has not returned in that time. Her mother walks the widow walk and looks for him. However, she is cold to Mercy and has a male friend who is scary and attempts to harm Mercy. Mercy, along with her cousin and tutor, Mordecai, arrange to leave their home in Connecticut and take a boat out to sea. They are chased by the mysterious man in blue but manage to get to Mouse Island which is populated by a large group of women who weave day and night. They welcome both Mercy and Mordicai and tell them something about their history and the importance of their sons for whaling.
Whaling was the sole occupation of Moses Rathbone, the progenitor of the Rathbone clan. He was said to have salt water in his veins and was one with the whales and the sea. He started a large fleet of whaling vessels manned by the sons of his many wives. As Mercy and Mordicai travel from island to island, they learn more and more about their family.
The story is told from different vantage points in time and by different people, primarily in the 18th and 19th century. <
To be quite honest, I had a lot of trouble following the book and can not say that it grabbed me to any extent. However, it is very unusual and well-written. I was just not that interested in the story of the Rathbones.
Mercy Rathbone leads a strange, lonely life. Her father is off at sea, no one will discuss the brother she dimly remembers, and her only companions are a chilly, inattentive mother, two peculiar uncles, a pale, reserved cousin, and the two crows her father sent from some faraway port. Once, the Rathbone family was much larger, a great whaling enterprise with dozens of members, but something happened to reduce it to this. Mercy doesn't know what, but after an unexpected discovery about her mother brings on a desperate journey, she's going to find out. As Mercy charts the mythic, almost magical rise and fall of the Rathbones, she reveals an unsettling world of deprivation, drive, and despair: the world, not only of the Rathbones, but of all who make a living from the sea. As a grand metaphor and an exercise in mythmaking, THE RATHBONES, by turns charming and disturbing, has much to offer. But the lack of fleshed-out individual characters and the fundamental sameness of certain flashbacks prevent the novel from reaching its full potential.
I don't think the cover copy makes clear that this is a mythic novel not merely in telling a grand story with structural echoes of various Greek legends, but in involving events so unlikely-- long lives, peculiar births, extraordinary talents-- they must almost be supernatural. These elements might, in other hands, make for a richly atmospheric novel, but described in Janice Clark's prose, which is clear and elegant but not especially vivid, their potential is somewhat diluted. Strong passages alternate with tedious ones; you can only read so many carefully-crafted but hollow descriptions of maritime-influenced architecture. It doesn't help that the stories of previous Rathbone generations are, thematically speaking, all one story: of men treating women as property and women learning to survive that mistreatment. This is powerful material, but to be done justice it demands psychologically credible characters, and Clark's creations lack that depth. Unlike protagonists in the best mythic fiction, they work only as thematic tools, not as individuals. Despite a lovely passage near the end that offers a kind of generalized truth, the complex ways in which men and women negotiated the harshness of the whaling life remains unexplored.
Still, in its best passages, from Mercy's happy days aboard ship to the rude awakening of one of patriarch Moses Rathbone's many wives, this is a thoroughly engaging novel. The broadly-drawn characters are as charming as those of genuine nineteenth-century fiction, and the echoes of Greek and Judeo-Christian religious stories make the tale of the Rathbones feel genuinely vast and portentous. At times the plot momentum seems to have been lost, but then an unexpected twist or delightful set-piece (like Mercy's visit to the in-laws) livens things up again. There's real pleasure too in following along as Mercy fills in her genealogical chart, drawing the unbelievably tangled lines that connect the generations. It is on those terms, as an old-fashioned saga with an eerie twist, one more whaling yarn, that THE RATHBONES is most successful, and can most profitably be read.
on September 2, 2013
I haven't slept much the last two nights as this book kept calling me back, just like the sea calls to those who have had the experience of sailing on it. As weird and wonderful and twisted a sea story as I've ever read.
on August 2, 2013
I chose this book based on reviews from the authors peers, not on those of Amazon readers. My experience with this book was completely different than what I expected from the reviews.
The wonderful promises of old world history, allusions to Greek ancient history and the comparison made to Moby Dick were, as far as I am concerned, far down on the list of what this story is overpoweringly saying. Beginning with chapter 4 entitled 'Moses Rathbone', the reader is thrown into the life of Moses Rathbone, a whaler bent on keeping full whaling crews of his own sons, and he figures he will need lots of sons because according to the story many die or become maimed in the whaling business. As we enter chapter four his 7th wife is brought to his home in the dark of night taken to Moses bed chamber and left there. Moses inspects Hepzibah (the new wife) as if he were inspecting breeding stock. When he decides she meets whatever his standard is he beds her and then she is passed on in the same way to all of Moses sons from about age 14 up that very same night.
Any boys born to Moses many wives are kept for the whaling business, girls disappear. When a wife gets too old to be good breeding stock anymore she is shipped off to an Island with all the other wives that are now useless to Moses and his sons as breeding stock. The useless wives are housed and provided for for the rest of their lives. When the babies are born the boys are taken from their mothers before they can walk and raised from that point on by the men in the family. All the men lived on the first floor of the house and the wives on the second floor. And so on we go through the generations not knowing who was the father of the children because the "wife" was given to all the men.
Somewhere in the family line one of Moses boys decided to court a high society girl, the girl, Lydia, and her two sisters, last name Stark, were married into the Rathebone family, only this time the three wives were kept only for their husbands and were guarded so none of the other Rathebone men could couple with them. The 3 wives bore many sons, in this generation Lydia Stark Rathborne convinced her husband to allow the little girls to live. Each of the three Stark wives bore a daughter each. When the girls turned about 14 their mothers decided to send the girls away to school in Boston. These 3 girls only pretended to go to the school and instead moved themselves in downstairs with their uncles and brothers presenting themselves like bar room trollops and laid with all of the men producing an inbred generation that was far from what Moses had originally planned. I felt the presence of this most degrading treatment of women, children and the conduct of some of the women so prevalent on every page of this book that it permeated and overshadowed nearly all other parts of the story to the point of drowning any remaining relevance of the story. The book, told mostly from the point of view of Mercy Rathborne even tells how Mercy's father would show up about once a year to have sex with Mercy's mother on the boards of the widows walk at the top of the house and then leave again as soon as he had dropped her skirts back down, and in the end Mercy tells we readers how her father came back one last time and while executing his act her mother died, from to tight a corset and her fathers hands around his wifes neck, then he stood back up on his feet and as usual descended the ladder of the widows walk and went on his way.
As I mentioned the book is steeped in this material and thus bears very,very,very, little resemblance to the mentioned reviews.
The Rathbone family were people of the sea, such that it was claimed that the first Rathbone, Moses, had salt water instead of blood. But as the years passed and the whales disappeared, the family's fortunes declined, and neither their wealth nor their passion for the sea could slow their desiccation. Mercy Rathbone, at fifteen, is the Rathbone heir. Seven years ago, her father left the family to search for whales. Her mother paces the widow's walk, watching for her husband, while suitors begin to gather at the house, waiting for Mercy's father to be declared legally dead. The girl spends most of her time with her cousin and tutor, Mordecai, who teaches her about Greek mythology, marine biology and ship navigation. When a mysterious man invades the house one night, Mordecai and Mercy flee, and as they sail the islands of the Connecticut coast with a sympathetic ship captain, they slowly unravel the forgotten history of the Rathbone family.
Clearly drawing inspiration from Homer's The Odyssey, Janice Clark has created a gothic tale with mysteries, murders and ghosts that recalls the dark style of authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story unravels slowly, peeling away hidden family secrets like layers of an onion. Some of these stories are shocking and horrible; early Rathbone wives were essentially kept as sex slaves by the Rathbone sailors, raped and passed from one man to the next. A great sadness haunts the women of the family, even into Mercy's generation. By contrast, the men are often depicted as rather blockheaded and undistinguished - they exist for the sea and for the thrill of hunting whales, and rarely develop much of a personality. An exception to this is Mordecai, Mercy's closest friend, who elicits sympathy. He is a pale, sickly youth who longs for the sea but lacks the physical vigor to make it as a sailor; throughout the book he is humored and carefully deceived by the captain's crew so that he seems as integral as any other man, but it's obvious that his book-learning has failed to prepare him for the real world.
At first, I thought there was a spark of magic in this novel. The old-fashioned rhythm of the words and the Gothic atmosphere made me hope that I would get sucked in and be enchanted. But the more I read, the less mysterious and special the story seemed. Instead, I felt like I was sinking in long descriptive passages and bogged down in family history. Every once in a while, a few sentences or a paragraph or two would sparkle, and I would continue through the book, refreshed. Ultimately, though, the book felt like a very slow slog that just rolled on and on. By the two-thirds mark, I couldn't wait to for the story to be over, and I had to push myself to finish the tale.
In 1859, young Mercy Rathbone lives with her mother, two uncles, and a cousin in the once great, now ramshackle Rathbone estate. Her father has been at sea for almost ten years. Her mother is distracted and distant. Her cousin is exiled to the attic. It's a grim life on the coast of Naiwayonk, Connecticut. Her prosperous forebears, led by the enigmatic Moses Rathbone, were successful whalers. The great sperm whales are all but gone now, however, and the family seems to be wasting away. Mercy's mother paces the widow's walk each night anticipating her husband's return. One night, Mercy hears a song that draws her from her bed. She ends up on the widow's walk and what she witnesses startles her. Together with her cousin, Mordecai, she flees Naiwayonk. It's a journey that will reveal her family's past and quicken her own memory. Waiting among the ashes of the Rathbone legacy may be something like redemption for Mercy.
"The Rathbones" is a unique tale. It leaps around in time and place. Aspects of the narrative are dream-like, a surreal mix of the mythical and the mundane. As Mercy travels along the coast and meets fascinating characters, she learns more about the Rathbones and fills in a page showing her family tree. This family tree appears in the novel a few times at different stages of completion.
Mercy is a winsome protagonist. She's inquisitive, sincere, bright, and a delightful companion for a quest. The author's portrayal of sailing and whaling seems utterly authentic. Underlying the work is a captivating depiction of the sympathetic relationship between the hunter and his prey. This mythical dynamic of the hunter worshipping and giving thanks to his food source is commonly found in early cultures (e.g., the Native American and buffalo). The relationship between the sperm whales and the Rathbones is symbiotic and its inevitable corruption is harrowing.
There are two principal complaints about the novel. The tale is so mythical on occasion that it lacks a solid enough grounding in reality. The reader is left wondering what to do with what he's given. Things are sometimes muddled in ambiguity. Additionally, there's a strong coarseness and distastefulness pervading the novel. Misogyny and incest are not passing elements but predominant themes of the work. I longed for some greater purpose for the unpleasantness, but was left wanting.
I give "The Rathbones" four stars somewhat reluctantly. Despite a lot of objectionable content, however, the novel ends very well. The fanciful recedes into the background and a haunting and tragic family tale takes center stage. Much that was shrouded in mystery is made clear. Revisiting the beginning of the novel again in context of its conclusion really highlights the strength of Janice Clark's design and execution. Anyone who enjoys a sea-faring tale, particularly one with mythical elements, will find plenty to enjoy.