A novel from Maine traces a family’s journey through unexpected changes
I took my love, I took it down / I climbed a mountain and I turned around / And I saw my reflection in the snowy hills / ‘Until the landslide brought me down
– Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac
The power of music can sometimes be a switch. In the dark, you can turn it on and everything is better. And like that distant song from the past, when love seems to slip away, all we have to do is go back, remember, and love will find its way back.
In Susan Conley’s new novel “Landslide”, light and a flashback are what the Archer family need.
Bring together a life-changing moment, the challenge of raising two teenage boys and a mother realizing that life could have been different, in the midst of a Maine fishing community struggling to contain their way of life, and you have the the makings of a good story.
In Conley’s novel, the Archers seek out the light from the darkness brought by a devastating accident and the impact it has on both family and each of them as individuals. Hope and the redeeming power of love will be their beacon as they move from darkness to light.
Conley, who grew up in Maine, is the award-winning author of five books. She is one of the founders of Telling Room, a creative writing center for young people in Portland, where she lives and teaches in the faculty of the Stonecoast writing program.
In the fictional fishing community of Sewall, Maine, Jill Archer spends her time looking after her two teenage sons while on long trips to Nova Scotia where her fishing husband, Kit, is recovering from a fishing accident. swordfish fishing. In between, she coaxes her career as a documentary maker by capturing the tragic disappearance of the very place she lives and is a mother who raises rebellious teenagers while living a secluded life on their home island of Penobscot Bay.
Her sons Charlie, 17, and Sam, 16, don’t make it any easier. She calls them “the wolves”. With their hormonal drives vying for time against the ‘here I am’ times all families face, there is something else lurking. Sam faces the guilt. Two years earlier, Sam had seen his closest friend fall through the rotten planks of a bridge and drown. The way he copes with this loss goes through a myriad of spontaneous destructive behaviors. The guilt of the survivor? Yes. But, with an absent father, it is also a cry to be constantly reassured that all will be well.
Charlie is in love and is looking for the next chapter in his life: independence. But he struggles to find his own space within the cramped confines of island life. Life is not easy when it comes to long drives to the hospital to visit his father or when his mother relies on him to curb his brother against the sometimes dangerous, often unpredictable behavior, which is Sam’s nature. The two boys are differently obsessed with their father’s eventual return home. For Jill, she waits and hopes too.
“It’s late afternoon at the end of a long October when the song Fleetwood Mac hits the air. We’re halfway to the peninsula, and I’m telling Wolves I was raised on Stevie Nicks, so could they please let me listen to everything. Because Sam, the youngest, has a bad habit of changing stations.
The protective instincts of the family, similar to those of a pack, reveal a sense of vigilance that never stops. Who is the alpha of this story? I think it’s Conley’s use of the island house, keeping the family grounded in their place and to each other while the reader wonders with every turn of the page: what’s next?
Jill is a foreigner, a town girl who grew up two hours away. Kit is a pure fisherman, knowing only one house and one way of life. Jill, after traveling in Europe while pursuing a career and love, returns to Maine to find Kit and a way of life she doesn’t recognize. Now, boats, fishing, quotas, water and winter are at the center of his concerns, while the “wolves” constantly need to eat.
Life on the island is tough enough for two parents raising a family, let alone one getting away with two teenage children while the other heals and tries to reunite. As bills rise, marital tensions raise questions of infidelity, teenage rebellion, and the all-supporting fishing industry begins to crumble, a landslide of emotion takes hold. this story and Conley completely captures the pitch and the emotions.
The pace of this story evolves like that of a wolf protecting its own – intelligent, unpredictable, aggressive, at times impulsive, which might lead some to think that the story is a bit chaotic.
I did not find it that way. The writing is deliberate, sparse, yet compelling, and often beautiful to illustrate what unexpected changes do to a family already in crisis, struggling from within amid outside forces over which they often have no control. It is an exceptional story.
By Susan Conley
Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, hardcover, $ 26.95