Joanna Scott is a master of quiet anxiety. In “Tourmaline,” her sixth novel, the Murdoch family sets sail aboard the Carpathia for the Italian island of Elba in the early 1950s. What could be more enchanting and hopeful than sailing across the Atlantic on a grand ocean liner? Toward an exotic isle rumored to be rich with the gemstone tourmaline? Your young happy family in tow? It all seems like a magical destiny: “From the leeward deck we saw sun pillars shining on the horizon. From the promenade at the stern we watched seagulls soar.”
Then one day the engineer onboard tells the mother, Claire Murdoch, “The most dangerous thing you can do in your life is get out of bed in the morning.” Claire has politely befriended him and she listens patiently, nodding. Later, the engineer, ostensibly romping, recklessly holds one Murdoch child, Nat, over the side of the ship. Claire sees something else besides a man and child at play. As her son Oliver, the novel’s narrator, describes it: “There he stood, palms turned inward, my brother no longer between his hands. That’s what my mother saw: a man in pose of a priest who has just made an offering to the sea.”
She’s mistaken — the engineer had his back to her and for a moment she just couldn’t see her son, who is fine. But then later the engineer commits suicide, and for the rest of “Tourmaline,” you stay alert for similar signs of imminent disaster: outstretched hands, a mother’s intuition, a child’s vulnerability.
This feeling of dread might also have something to do with the truth hidden behind the the Murdochs’ first-class facade: The family has no money. They’re headed to Elba, where the father, Murray Murdoch, played football on the beach after World War II, hoping that the island paradise will improve the family’s financial luck with a venture in the gem trade. To Oliver, the youngest son, everything does seem perfect; during the time they’re on Elba, he’s just a boy, protected by the innocence of childhood.
On Elba, Murray Murdoch fails repeatedly, mostly because he’s unsure of his desires: “What’s tourmaline? Everything and nothing. Tourmaline is what a man looks for when he doesn’t know what he’s looking for.” Murray meets Francis Cape, a British historian struggling to write a history of Napoleon’s exile on Elba, and Cape’s mysterious and bizarrely attractive companion, a local named Adriana Nardi. Soon after Murray falls for her, Adriana vanishes. The local Elbans start to have dreams about the missing woman and the American speculator, who they suspect had something to do with her disappearance.
Murray Murdoch should pack up his family and go back to New York, but he stubbornly remains. The sad reality is that Murray is simply a bumbling loser, his life one continuous china shop full of things he was destined to break.
“Tourmaline” is in no way a perfect book — somehow the drama surrounding Adriana’s disappearance feels less gripping than irksome, and why she’s so alluring to both Murray and Francis Cape remains a mystery. If that’s due to some failure in Oliver’s efforts to recapture a past he was too young to understand, then Scott has taken her writer-narrator device too far. Her manipulation of memory, truth and history sometimes gets in the way of her story.
Yet Scott writes so beautifully that the problems with “Tourmaline” are easily forgotten. What’s particularly lovely is the way Scott explores Oliver’s memory. The novel begins with a bunch of scattered paragraphs, separate memories that eventually turn into a story. It’s wonderfully, hypnotically effective, as if Oliver’s recollection slowly comes into focus, becoming stronger with each page.
But “Tourmaline” also ends the same way, the paragraphs and memories getting shorter and shorter as the end nears, giving the sense that Oliver either wants to include every scrap of history he can, or maybe, that he’s still just grabbing blindly for the truth.
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