” As a seasoned traveled writer, I had returned to the embarkation point, entered the forbidden city of Waterford as though permitted voyage at last, to a severe wonderland that had killed my wife outright and that had left me estranged from my own family and friends. In my eyes, the town was a dangerous place, riddled with cul de sacs and dead ends, and you could not turn your back on it for a single instant. ” (Ch.23, p.378)
Beach Music begins a tragedy and mystery, but under Conroy’s preeminent storytelling prowess, it asserts into many facets that encompass over three generations. The heart of this ultra long novel by contemporary standard is not only a family saga, it’s also a tender story about motherhood and maternal love.
In 1980, after his wife leaped to her death from Silas Pearlman Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, Jack McCall, a travel writer and chef, hurt and scarred by Shyla’s death, moved t Italy to begin life anew with his young daughter. Battle over custody renders he and his in-laws enemies. His own family reminds him of Dante’s hell.
She’s a lot of people’s niece–I’m perfectly consistent–none of my brothers get to see her, either. I’m raising Leah so she can be screwed up by only one single relative. That’s me. My family’s fucked up and your family’s fucked up. But I carefully devised a life so that this condition of perpetual damage will not pass to my kid. (Ch.2, p.42)
After Shyla’s death, Jack wants to disappear out of his own life. His mother’s leukemia diagnosis terminates his five-year self-exile in Italy, since he bases his whole return on Lucy’s health. Beach Music is as much a story of Jack’s bereavement of Shyla as their mothers’ stories. Until Conroy reveals Shyla’s circuitously emotional struggle that leads to her suicide, he fills us in on the harrowing pasts of the parents. Shyla’s father survived Auschwitz. Jack’s father immersed in alcoholic reality. Both mothers, Ruth Fox (an orphaned survivor of the Holocaust) and Lucy Pitts (witnessed her mother’s murder of her abusive father) nourish their children with love based on their common need for order and mannerliness in their lives. Both had endured lives of chaos and incivility in their marriages.
He told the court again and again that Shyla was the one person who acted from a deep sense of moral outrage against the Vietnam War. He attributed it to a longing for some earthly paradise that she had developed growing up with a father who had survived Auschwitz and a mother who had watched her family murdered by the Nazis. (Ch.37, p.687)
As Jack returns to his birthplace, he is forced into a painful, intimate, but enlightening search for the family’s past that would ultimately heal his anguished heart. he realizes, by removing his daughter from her birthplace and denying her family tie, he has done the same his mother did—and he regrets misjudging her. She lied about who she was and where she came from in order to protect her children from the horrors of her ill-fated childhood. Shyla protects her daughter from her madness by giving up life altogether. Beach Music is a powerful novel in the searing truth it conveys.The lives in this story are overlaid with the unutterable horrors of the Holocaust and the lingering trauma of Vietnam War as well as the antiwar campaign back home. Besides jack’s whole acres of ache unto himself, the book unfolds in a burst of action: there’s a conspiracy afoot, a priest in hiding, a terrorist explosion. While the frequent interludes of reminiscence require patience, the ending is a satisfactory tie-up of the bundles. This novel is brimming with humanity.
800 pp. Dial Press. Paper. [Read/
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