Reviewed by: Pete Barber
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Approximate word count: 90-95,000 words
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A novelist, journalist and photographer, Kate Campbell grew up in San Francisco and has lived and worked throughout California and the West. Adrift in the Sound, was a finalist for New York's 2011 Mercer Street Books Literary Prize. Campbell's environmental and political writing appears regularly in newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S. She lives in Sacramento and, in addition to writing fiction and poetry, publishes the Word Garden blog.
Lizette is a gifted abstract painter with severe personality issues—perhaps bi-polar—although I don’t believe this was stated. Pressured to achieve as a child, when her artist mother committed suicide something snapped inside Lizette. Estranged from her father, she drifts into bad company, and makes unwise life-choices. The story follows Lizette as she struggles with mental illness and searches for meaning in her life. Although set in the Seventies, no attachment with that era is required to connect with this story.
I read because I love to lose myself in another world and experience life vicariously through someone else’s eyes. Also, as an aspiring writer, I read to learn. For me, reading Adrift in the Sound was tantamount to attending a fiction writing master class.
Tactile scene settings sucked me into a story as multi-layered as one of Lizette’s beautifully described oil paintings. Ms. Campbell colors her scenes with fine details, often transforming the settings into another character to add emotion. For example, after an argument with her father, Lizette turns her back on him and the house and takes the path in the rain toward the small cabin her mother used as her artists’s studio. Lizette perceives the cabin like this: “Two big windows stared into the tangled garden, watching the house through rain-streaked eyes.” Or her view of the car ferry that will take her to Orcas Island in the Puget Sound, where much of the story unfolds: “The wide-bodied boat nudged the dock, bounced against the pylons, settled into its berth like a lumbering beast nestling into a safe burrow.” Or the way the ocean appears to her: “The afternoon sun scattered silver sequins across the water.” I confess I have a ton more highlights on my Kindle; so many I had to stop myself. Unable to choose which to use in the review, I simply chose the first three—they’re all exceptional.
Lizette’s world is populated by a cast of complex, multi-faceted characters. Many are unpleasant. All were real to me. A brutal sexual assault early in the story permanently scars Lizette and scarred this reader along with her. It happened because she takes crazy chances and trusts the wrong people. But don’t see her as a weakling. On a number of occasions she does significant harm to those whom she perceives as a threat. Although, as I watched Lizette become a danger to others, I was never quite sure of her intentions. That’s a measure of how off-balance the author kept me, and how hard I was rooting for Lizette.
Lizette’s affinity for the native Indians who live on Orcas and form her support group provides more wonderful characters whose lifestyle grounds the story in history and in nature. I have no connection with Native Indians or their customs, but I found their lives and beliefs and plain commonsense added to the palette of an already colorful story.
The novel is a deep, slow burn, and not without humor. One particular scene involving a large snake and an unpleasant junkie had me laughing so loud I woke my wife (I read at night). A larger-than-life character--self-described poet, Toulouse--is described in the eyes of Lizette’s friend, Marian thusly: “Toulouse moved off with a flourish, tipping a goodbye from the rim of his foolish hat. Marian watched him go, his self-importance shoved up his ass like a mop handle.”
Complex, troubled, and gifted, Lizette connects with the natural world on such a deep level that she pulled me along until I stood beside her marveling at the natural beauty of an ocean wave, or the fearsome power of the killer whales as they hunt in the Sound, or the subtle simplicity of an old Indian woman dancing in a mask of feathers and bear skin. She broke my heart as we watched a seal taken by a predator, or a pet dog injured. I know, as she does, it’s natural. You can’t interfere, you can’t help—but still, you share the stab of her guilt.
With more “Oh, didn’t see that coming” moments than I had any right to expect, Adrift in The Sound is the best book I’ve read in a long time.
Check it out. You won’t regret it.
No typos to mention. Some graphic scenes and bad language (used appropriately).
Rating: ***** Five stars