Shining Sea
Anne Korkeakivi
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Shining Sea
Anne Korkeakivi
Little Brown
288 pages
August 2016
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Exploring the effect of tragedy on one American family, Korkeakivi’s expansive novel focuses on Barbara Gannon as she tries to cope with the traumatic consequences of her husband’s sudden death. Michael Gannon’s unexpected demise from heart failure becomes a powerful symbol for the author’s intricate examination of marriage and fidelity in which passion is weakened and the economic realities of life become a painful reality.

Having survived the hellish road up the Battaan peninsula in 1942, Michael’s failing heart doesn’t stop him from marrying pretty, dark-haired Barbara, who volunteers to look after him at a hospital in San Francisco. Outwardly at ease with his new post-war life, Michael becomes a successful doctor while Barbara manages their home, raising their five robust children. After migrating to Los Angeles, they proceed to carve out for themselves, “their own personal history.” Here in this sun-drenched city, Michael’s death forces Barbara acknowledge that she must fight to remain cheerful no matter what life throws at her.

Within these opening pages, Korkeakivi establishes her scenario as Barbara’s existence threatens to collapse under the weight of her loss. In 1962, on the day of Michael’s funeral, everyone is talking about President Kennedy, the Soviets, and Cuba.  As Barbara’s sister-in-law Jeanne and her daughter Molly stay, offering up support whenever they can, Barbara must learn the hard reality: that life with her children--Luke and Mike Jr., Patty Ann and Francis--will never be the same. Sadly, the presence of the kids only reinforces the notion of how energetic 43-year-old Michael would have filled their home. Barbara worries that everything that has happened over the past years will be left behind.

However, the life-choices of young, hotheaded Francis steamroll the story forward, providing the groundwork for much of the drama to come. When Barbara gives Francis Michael’s old army canteen, the item becomes a symbol: Francis will never be like his Dad, “never be brave or a hero.” The canteen is also a symbol for survival in a time of war, leading Korkeakivi to unfurl her major theme: how war can demolish people’s lives. Beyond Luke and Michael Jr., stationed in Vietnam, to Patty Ann’s decision to marry her no-good boyfriend to keep him from being drafted, war becomes synonymous with the 1960s. So is Woodstock with its temptations of sex and drugs. Korkeakivi presents the legendry rock festival through Francis’s vulnerable teenage eyes: “this cocoon of music and colors.”

Like stitches in a delicately laced quilt, Korkeakivi threads the complicated lives of Barbara and Francis through time, reflecting an intricate web of progress down through the decades. In 1996, a proud and battle-tested Barbara attends the graduation ceremony for Kenny, her grandson. Barbara is long past the girl she was when she and Michael married. And although, Ronnie, her second husband, was never the kind of husband she wanted him to be, he was able to give her the economic security she craved.

Jumping back to 1985, Francis’s decision to hide out on Iona, a small island in the Inner Hebrides on the western coast of Scotland, reinforces the notion of a life that has blurred the lines. Francis’s actions provide a shocking counterbalance to Barbara’s generational dependability.

The core of the novel is Francis’s dangerous rowing trip across the Irish sea with people he barely knows--Rufus, Katie, and Ghislaine. The journey is an adventure and a challenge, the sea’s huge expanse reflecting newfound freedom for Francis. Constantly plagued by old feelings of being watched and followed, Francis makes the fateful decision to run to the farthest place he can find. In Iona (and later Ireland), Francis finally recognizes the deep and warm safety he feels with his girlfriend, Georgina. In contrast, when Barbara when sees herself as Kenny’s age back in Southern California so many years ago, she could never have imagined that her life would go off course and become so complicated.

As Barbara’s echoes of intimacy reverberate, Korkeakivi seems to be saying that amid all of this chaos, life seems more like “a crazy juggernaut of possibilities” in which the physical memories of the decades never leave us. It’s a strange sensation, like hurtling through life itself to a place of memory and sadness, where the beauty of love coexists with the chaos of contemporary existence.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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