Lara Tupper's OFF ISLAND is a beautiful accomplishment, unlike any other work of fiction I can recall. The two narratives intertwine in such a way as to both demystify historical celebrity and elevate contemporary plainfolk. The prose is seductive and elegant, the story smart, enlightening, and oh so satisfying.
- Antonya Nelson, BOUND, SOME FUN
Colorful and wild, dynamic and moving, lusty and hungry and strange, OFF ISLAND is everything we love about Paul Gauguin and everything a novel should be. - Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket)
New England, 1903
The northern island looked best in morning light: slices of sheer cold rays on rugged pines and cliffs, the gray-blue sea below. The edges were glacier-pocked and the painter could imagine the ice sheets creeping over and creeping back, dumping bits of land where no land had been before. Mornings, the rocks looked like glaciers still, locked and frozen in mid-tumble toward the sea.
If you squint you can see clear to Portugal, the island Pastor had told him, which was similar to something the painter’s father had said decades ago: “Look hard and you’ll see your hairy Aunt waving from the dock in Lima.” Bile had filled the boy’s throat, lodged in the bow as the ship pitched like a small tree in the strong storm. His father had wanted him to focus only on distant, pleasant things. He lifted his son with solid arms again and again as he spit up over the side.
He’d lied to the boy. When the ship reached Peru, no one waited at the dock, not even a priest. Lima was miles from the shore, the boy soon discovered. And his father wouldn’t be there to point out which hairy Aunt.
“Bad heart,” said a stooped old hag onboard. Like she’d caused his heart to fail mid-journey herself.
It was one part of a dim, implanted memory: four years in Peru with his sad, distant mother, the particulars repeated by his mother’s relatives so often the boy inherited the memories too. Not just the keeling of the ship and his queasiness, but the funeral at sea, the bulk of his father wrapped and sheeted and cast swiftly from the deck where he’d stood with his son.
From the island, the painter could not see Portugal-- nor Denmark, where his own sons waited. Not that his vision wasn’t excellent. His eyes and mouth seemed braced for something unpleasant, his brow dented with squint-lines. At the glass in his rented room he prodded at the lines, his hawkish nose weathered by sun. And absinthe, perhaps. His beard was still a tawny reddish color, a hearty shade of rust. Good-looking bugger, he’d thought that morning. Robinson bloody Crusoe.
Now, on the cliff, the painter stooped, hearing a sharp rustle behind him on the trail--Pastor? Landlady?—the shush of thick clothing. He listened for voices, then twisted up to see two day-trippers in long, white dresses.
He plunked down foolishly in the raspberry bush again and waited.
“Look,” said one. “A painter at work!” Then they walked on, laughing like gulls, pointing at distant Port Clyde.
The painter smelled the fruit about to turn, felt the tug of thorns on his pant leg. He plucked a pink berry and was disappointed to taste more seed than juice. He stayed there, squatting in the bush, until the laughter was gone.
The painter hadn’t been off-island yet, not since his arrival. What would be the point? He wasn’t a promiscuous man in that regard. The light had become progressively more concentrated, less watery as the summer weeks passed. And now the cliffs required his full attention.
The islanders were tricky too, with their hard expressions, their slow way of speaking or not speaking—such a loudness in what wasn’t said. The men were sturdy and barrel-chested, ready to shoulder lobster traps and strings of buoys heavy with seawater. The women had legs that could plant themselves into the ground and bear weight. They hauled things—laundry and children, herring for salting, ice for cooling, drums and casks of things shipped from away and dumped at the pier. There was churning and sound in daylight, all the warm hours utilized as the painter hid on the trails, his soul impious, his hands not put to proper use.
He tried to avoid the other painters too, dozens of them from Europe and worse, all peering out to sea in odd hats. They chose the paths closest to town (less lugging) and so he chose the path closest to the cliffs.
It was his dealer’s fault—he’d lodged the notion long ago. Go north! An island to yourself again, mon ami. Not like Polynesia. Get the paintings done quickly. Get them back fast for me to sell.
He was a greedy bastard. A good dealer, a better friend. But dead wrong about the island being empty. He was fucking Mette, probably. Or Mette was fucking him.
He waited for a swoop of anger or jealousy at the thought.
But it was their arrangement. It was why she’d sent him away, wasn’t it? To get him away from her house and the things he might wreck. Their children, for one. Their savings.
No—this island wasn’t at all like the warmer places with brown girls and their well-kept huts. The pole for his absinthe to cool in the well. The hybride would be two? Yes, two. Little Aline. Another Aline, now that the first was gone.
But of course not another.
He’d changed his mind on the docks at Le Havre, thinking of his wife and her orders, remembering what his dealer had suggested. He’d gone ahead and changed his booking, endured the stink of steerage. Saw the nub of land as the famous Captain Smith might have—a flat cake of earth buffering more--two islands, really. One protecting the other with a harbor in between, just wide enough for a ship to pull through. The blind luck of geography! An island saved from hard seas on one whole side, the side where the fishing could be staged, the part where the houses could crop up. Fish houses for bait and buoys and traps and lines. Little gray sheds weathered with boards for walkways, built on stilts to keep the water away.
The rest was all cliffs and woods with wild deer. And painters much too tame for his tastes.
He pulled himself up from the brambles, knees cracking, once the skirts were long gone. He moved his easel further from the path and closer to the cliff edge, waited for the mainland to disappear, for his dead daughter and living wife to leave him, until the wind and cliffs and sea were all he knew.
Copyright: Lara Tupper 2011
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