Publishing, Summer 2009
Reviewed by Joy
Fortune Island, part of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, looks just like a whale from head to tail. Running wild on Fortune Island almost from birth, Jessie is as much a part of the naturalist's world as her island is.
We first meet her as Jessie Judas the eminent biologist, winning an award for her popular book Souvenirs of the Sea in support of a balanced ecology. We also meet her mother Ruth and brother David. But David is many years younger than Jessie, and as we learn in the next chapter, Jessie's mother is Susannah. How came this to be?
Back and forth between five decades we go, between Jessie's parents' hopeless situation at her birth, to the life of wealth and achievement she and her family now know.
Jessie is a survivor. Otherwise she wouldn't have survived her stepfather, the twisted Reverend Cogburn. She receives support from the twenty-some other adults living on Fortune Island, but there are no other children, and she has no one to learn socialization from. All she has is the sea, the island's midwife Garcie, and her father's books. It is not adequate preparation for the new world she meets when writer Ruth Perle takes her under her wing.
Every short excursion we take into present-day solves some mysteries and raises others. "How did we get here from there?" I kept asking. Hold onto the clues you find in the present-day story, because you are going to need them to piece together the debris from the explosive climax on Fortune Island.
The first few sections of FORTUNE ISLAND are way too realistic, because the events of the past provided Jessie's parents with no escape from their dire circumstances. It was a relief to me when this stage of their lives was abandoned like empty rags.
After readers are set free from the house Jessie was born in, starting chapter six, I loved FORTUNE ISLAND. I was driven by the suspense, yes, but the main reasons were the personal awakenings of Jessie and her musician father. Ruth is introducing Jessie to a great new world. Big names in the music world, a friend her own age, a teenage crush, and testing that shows her high intelligence, ultimately come too thick and too fast. Author E.M. Schorb shows insights into the child Jessie, perhaps gleaned from his own grandchildren.
The dense writing in the early chapters gives the impression that Schorb is gunning his motor trying to create momentum. He could have built up the pace by making his prose leaner. Later the writing is sometimes just as dense, but nonetheless seems to flow, now that its impetus comes from the feelings and drives of the characters. The early disquisitions on architecture, clothing, or even the fabric of darkness do not bring the people and their stories to life, because these are externals, not informed by our characters and their drama.
Once the foundations have been laid come the phrases that freeze you in place, mesmerizing you by what has been laid bare behind the words. E.M. Schorb isn't a prize-winning poet for nothing. As a novelist, he also won the Grand Prize in Frankfurt for his PARADISE SQUARE. A wordsmith by birth, E.M. Schorb is still experimenting.
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