The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 261 pages. $23.95.
On Dec. 3, 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston, the only daughter of the disgraced Aaron Burr, left Georgetown, S.C., aboard the schooner Patriot to join her father in New York.
Neither the ship nor its passengers were ever seen again.
This beautifully written novel, by a professor at University of North Carolina-Greenville, suggests that she washed up on a tiny barrier off North Carolina, and imagines the kind of life she might have found there.
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The story is divided between 1813 and the present, and begins on the rain-swept shore of Yaupon Island as Theodosia is found by one of its few residents, a man known as Whaley.
Whaley fishes her out of the surf, saving her and a favorite portrait she was bringing for her father, and takes her to his makeshift home. She is viciously attacked by a dog, and he saves her again. She thinks he must love her, and she has a growing feeling for him. Unfortunately, she is married. So is he.
Now in the present, still on that island, are three main characters, a black man named Woodrow and two white sisters, Maggie and Whaley.
The sisters are, it turns out, the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of Theodosia Burr.
Whaley takes pride in her relative's knowledge of Latin and Greek, in her ability to "read old dead poets in French, know by heart the names of the British royalty and all the stories from the Bible."
She loves to tell stories of the past to the people she calls "the Tape Recorders" -- anthropologists who are fascinated with the lives of the last inhabitants of this remote island.
Neither sister has ever married, although Maggie had a long and intense affair with a much younger man named Boyd. He wanted to take her to the mainland, but she was afraid to go. Finally he left, and she went on talking to him, pretending he was still there, praying to God for his return. Eventually, she resolved to find him and persuaded a reluctant Woodrow to take her to the mainland. The trip was a disaster, and she never saw Boyd again.
Meanwhile, back in time: Theodosia is still living with Whaley -- their neighbors consider them married -- but he never comes near her. One night she comes to him while he sleeps and they finally make love. Over the coming years they have three children. Whaley was good to them but aloof, and he, much like Boyd, simply disappears.
At the end, in the present, the two sisters are sitting quietly, thinking of the past, going over what they will tell the Tape Recorders when they return. This is a book filled with lovely poetic writing, evoking the reality of lives cut off from civilization, but not a lot happens. We spend most of the time inside the heads of Theodosia, in the past, and of Maggie and Whaley in the present, with an occasional insight into what Woodrow is thinking. Everyone asks him why he goes on taking care of two old white women who never so much as thank him for what he does for them. Love is never mentioned, but it is there. One night they are talking about his age and Maggie says, "Old enough to know better." Whaley said: "Too old to change." They could, Woodrow thought, be talking about themselves.
This is a difficult novel to explain, just as it is hard for the characters to communicate with one another. Their true feelings are always hidden and often not even articulated to themselves, yet you still feel great compassion for them all. One critic wrote: "Parker invokes magic as well as mystery in exploring the ways the past not only haunts the present but in some ways anticipates it. Like Faulkner and O'Connor, he creates a place of beauty and complexity which, in the end, one is reluctant to leave."
Another summed it up by saying, "Parker knows everything about the human heart. He is an astonishing American writer."