The Great Inland Sea
David Francis
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The Great Inland Sea
David Francis
240 pages
April 2006
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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This poignant and intense novel is dominated by two women: one is long dead but still alive in the memories of a young boy; the second is a wild young girl determined to be the first woman jockey, willing to trample anything in her path.

As a young man, Day loves them both to distraction - Emily, the mother who loses her wits in the barren landscape of Australia, and the other, Callie, his constant companion in America. They are unattainable for Day, the mother who exists only in his thoughts and the other, who will not be tied down, following her dreams and determined wanderlust.

The Australia of Day's imagination is as palpable as his yearning for connection, as isolated as his loneliness, "the views, the shapes of the trees and the angular cattle, the smell of the clothes dried hard in the sun." A man of few words and cold comfort, Day's father, Darwin, is out of patience and fearful of the consequences for his wife. He ties Emily to her bed to keep her from wandering in her mental confusion, and when she dies, he wraps her in a rough sack, tosses her body into a grave without a coffin, inscribing only her first name on the stone, "Emily-1947".

Day searches for bits of the past, the smells and colors of his youth, images of his mother sewing or digging in her garden, heavy with pregnancy, as he wanders from Australia to America and back. He vaguely remembers the man who visits the young bride and new mother, Dickie DelMar, an Argentinean horseman, who takes the place of Darwin in Emily’s affections.

No matter where he is, questions weigh upon Day, all that he wants to ask Darwin about Emily, so little kindness between father and son that they barely speak: "I've carried him with me like a stone in my shoe." Then there is the enigmatic, unreachable Callie, who has stolen Day's heart without uttering a word. He believes she is his soul mate, although her cruel distance remains implacable.

In this remarkable novel, the reader is assaulted with stunning images, perfect phrases forming indelible pictures: "her sun-scorched arms like long gloves pulled up to her shoulders." On the wet sand of the Delaware shore, Callie rides her horse mercilessly, out into the ocean, as Day watches through fog-shrouded binoculars. The horse won't turn back, swims out to sea, but Callie returns to shore. Later, when the dead horse washes up on the beach, she says, "He wasn't going to be an important horse," then walks away. Callie the woman will not have changed much from her younger self.

A reckoning awaits in this sullen land of hard men and a woman too fragile to exist in their world, and a son who has known so little of love that he chooses a partner as broken as himself, hoping the pieces will fit together. Until he unravels his conflicted feelings, Day is a prisoner of memory. But in the land of his childhood there are more answers than he ever dreamed.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2005

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