(Do you see the hands gripping the edge of the barrel? I missed that detail when I first picked up the book, but it turns out it fits into the story.)
Morons go sailing....
So let me back up and tell a short story. My dad picked up The Heart of the Sea in an airport bookstore and read it on a plane. He got home, asked if I wanted it, and I said sure. (Is there any other answer when someone offers you a book?) Then he told me that it wasn't great, and that he thought a better title would have been Morons Go Sailing. I have this thing about reading every book I own/am given, and The Heart of the Sea really didn't look too long, so I read it. Yup: it was a long, detailed tale of the actual crew and actual voyage that inspired Moby Dick. And yup: these guys took every decision-making opportunity and made the wrong decision. Hence, Morons Go Sailing. Then I started thinking, and I remembered that I didn't actually enjoy Moby Dick either. Or Jamrach's Menagerie. Or Life of Pi. But all three of those did get some rave reviews.... So all that to say, maybe books that involve sea voyages just aren't for me. And to tell you a funny story about how my dad and I reclassify books that involve sea voyages that we don't enjoy.
Again: I want to emphasize that maybe the fault is with me. Maybe I'm just genetically predisposed to not enjoy sailing books.
The Rathbones is also about family. (Like the start of my post!) But it is not a happy tale. It's a multigenerational odyssey, as experienced by Mercy, fourteen and the last in a long line of Rathbones. She has grown up in a huge and largely empty house; it has beds enough to sleep many dozen, but is currently only occupied by her, her mother, and her cousin. On the brink of becoming a woman, she is starting to question: where is her father? Did he really abandon the family, or is he lost at sea? Who is her cousin's mother? Why is he kept locked up in the attic? One night, Mercy and her cousin witness a strange man come to the house and attack her mother on the widow's walk. They flee, and thus begins their quest across the ocean in search of genealogical answers and the ever more rare sperm whales.
This book demands the reader's full attention. From the first chapter, you will find yourself intrigued and just as interested in finding answers as Mercy is. The answers come, but they are doled out sparingly across the pages, like a feeble trail of breadcrumbs leading you onward. I read an ARC, so I'm not sure this feature remained in the final copy, but in my copy there were four family trees spaced pretty evenly through the book. The first one is very, very spare, with a lot of blank space in the middle. As the book progresses, Mercy is able to fill in more and more of the blank space. I really appreciated that, as I would have been completely lost without them! The Rathbones are a LARGE family.
I don't know how to say this, but The Rathbones is kind of literarily (I think I just made up that word) pretentious. The language is a bit heavy-handed, and many scenes feel only partially developed. Like the night that Mercy and her cousin leave home; the way the scene is described, I wasn't even sure if the stranger was real, or a figment of Mercy's imagination. Was he physically assaulting Mercy's mother, or were they engaged in consensual lovemaking? And there are many more scenes that left me grasping at mist.
I would recommend this to people who love history and whaling and family sagas and puzzling out the deeper meaning of books. I would not recommend this to the casual reader.
*I received an ARC of The Rathbones from the publisher in exchange for my fair and honest review. Thank you!