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Blood is thicker than water – ‘Landslide’

February 5, 2021
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We’ve all heard the old saw “Write what you know.” However, we don’t all agree on what that actually means.

For a writer like Susan Conley, it means carrying a deep, fundamental understanding of the sorts of people and places that you’re going to bring to life. That understanding – that knowledge – is what makes her work so engrossing and compelling.

Conley’s newest book is “Landslide” (Knopf, $26.95), a thoughtful exploration of the demographic and economic shifts that have been taking place in towns up and down the Maine coast in recent years. It’s a story of struggles – the struggle to make ends meet, the struggle to find fulfillment, the struggle of married life and motherhood – marked by occasional small moments of personal victory. All of it refracted through the prism of one woman’s perspective.

Grasping the importance of connection is a hallmark of Conley’s work – see 2019’s excellent “Elsey Comes Home” for a prime example – and she continues along that path with this one. She sets up shop in her protagonist’s head, giving the reader a first-hand look at the inner strife that comes with experiencing changes that are largely unwelcome and more than a little frightening.

Jill lives in the small Maine fishing town of Sewall with her family. She’s a documentary filmmaker, devoted to telling the stories of towns like her current one and the mill town she grew up in, towns being left behind by the changing times. Her husband Kit is a generational fisherman, a man whose life has been lived on the water. It’s a job to which he remains devoted, even as economic and legislative realities close in.

But when an accident on the water leaves Kit hospitalized far from home, it’s just Jill and her two teenaged sons – she calls them “wolves,” an apt representation of her affectionate wariness of them – living in their tiny island cabin and trying to stay hopeful while Kit recovers. It’s not easy; while 17-year-old Charlie is largely distracted, thanks to the presence of a new girlfriend in his life, 16-year-old Sam is proving to be quite a handful. Both boys are struggling to deal with the absence of their dad and their fears with regard to his well-being, but try as she might, Jill can’t seem to find the right way to alleviate those concerns.

As time passes, tensions mount. Jill isn’t at all sure how to deal with the boys. Should she be more lenient with Charlie’s desire to spend more time with his girlfriend? Or should she set more specific boundaries? And what’s the right way to deal with the constant acting out and poor decisions made by Sam? What can she do to make him take responsibility for himself while also providing him the support that he needs during these difficulties that have roots in both the present and the past? Oh, and she’s ALSO dealing with Kit’s family, longtime residents of Sewall who all have strong opinions of their own about, well … all of it. All this, plus the family’s slowly sinking financial situation, takes its toll.

And it doesn’t get better when Jill starts to suspect that there are other issues with her family, things squirming just far enough beneath the surface as to be difficult to see clearly. Difficult to see … and difficult to catch, even for a family built around fishing.

“Landslide” is a thoughtful and unflinching deconstruction of the relatively small world in which one woman lives, digging into what it means to love and to be loved. In this book, love is rewarding, yes, but it is also hard, with the ties that bind us constantly evolving due to circumstances both internal and external. Sometimes, we are hurt by the ones we love and are left to reckon with that hurt as best we can. And yet we love them still.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but what Conley has done here is subvert that notion. Yes, a void is left when a member of a family is absent. And yes, that person is missed. But the messy reality is that it is more complicated than that. Our hearts grow fonder, yes, but they can also grow sad or detached or resentful. That messiness, that refusal to romanticize – that is what makes “Landslide” resonate so deeply.

It is all brought to the fore by Conley’s lean, deft prose. I hesitate to use the term “readability” here – part of me worries that it’s damning with faint praise – but it’s tough to deny just how easy this book is to consume. Conley’s economical storytelling, her ear for dialogue, her vivid sense of place, her compelling characters and connections … it all contributes to a book that practically begs to be read quickly.

With “Landslide,” Susan Coley once more shows her innate understanding of the impact our connections have on us, for good and ill alike. This story of stormy familial waters rings true, casting a wide net as it evokes both the in-the-moment outsized nature of small conflicts and the compartmentalized distancing of large ones. All in all, a fine haul.

Last modified on Friday, 05 February 2021 08:06

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