April 2005

Loring Ann Pfeiffer

fiction

The Great Inland Sea by David Francis

The Great Inland Sea begins on two continents. It opens with a page-long description of the narrator’s beloved Callie riding a horse through the surf of a Delaware beach, then shifts immediately to small-town Australia, approximately five years prior, where Day, the narrator, details the death and burial of his mother as perceived by his twelve-year-old eyes. Haunted by thoughts of the Australian father he has run away from and the dead mother he has never come to grips with, Day is frequently pulled away from his American life of horse farming and jockey-ing by remembrances of the sparse, lonely landscape of his upbringing.

Only in Part II do Day’s past and present meet. Spurned by Callie, he decides to pay a visit to his father in Australia and, while there, excavates his mother’s death and his father’s aloofness with the honesty that his young adulthood allows. His parents’ dysfunctional relationship meant that, while growing up, Day knew little about either of his families’ histories. As such, it is only now that he learns that his mother was Jewish and, after permitting Darwin, Day’s father, to move her from Vienna to rural Australia, spent most of World War II impossibly wishing to return to Austria with her son. It is only now that Day is told the truth about his mother’s relationship with a man who paid an extended visit to the family when Day was young, someone who Day’s father referred to only as “Dickie Del Mar.” Darwin, although still reticent and removed, manages to fill in enough details about Day’s childhood to help present-day Day begin to connect the fragmented pieces of his past into a more fluid understanding of his parents and of himself.

Armed with this bourgeoning understanding, Day leaves Australia for Mexico, where Callie is riding in a horse show. The pair reconnect, ride horses, and eventually track down Dickie Del Mar, who plays a key role in completing the puzzle of Day’s history. When, at Dickie’s house, Day learns that Darwin has fallen ill, Callie and Dickie choose to return to Australia with Day, in a move that ends up forcing Day’s past and present onto each other in an almost surreal way. After starting the novel by separating these spheres so clearly, Francis ends his book by allowing them to bleed into each other in a way that proves surprising and troubling.

The concept of The Great Inland Sea is a good one: pasts and presents do indeed connect and disconnect in exactly the way this novel understands them to do. The novel’s flaw, however, is in its execution of this concept. Its vignettes are so short (none longer than five pages, some only a paragraph) that the reader is hard-pressed to be able to connect with its characters. Francis’s novel focuses so much of its energy on the important moments in its plot, and structures itself around these moments so singly, that it does not allow the reader to sink into any of the characters’ understandings. When one significant moment is completed, the novel moves -- often to another continent or another time period -- to the next important moment, noted in the text by chapter or line breaks. This rapid-fire movement from scene to scene ends up making The Great Inland Sea feel more like a play than like a novel. As such, this book fails to do the thing that novels are best at: allowing enough pages between important events, recording enough quotidian moments between significant happenings, to let the reader simply be with the characters. Without this space, unfortunately, it becomes next to impossible to involve oneself with the characters who make up this otherwise solid first novel.

The Great Inland Sea by David Francis
MacAdam/Cage Publishing
ISBN: 1596921161
240 Pages