If Tim Burton collaborated with Charles Addams to rewrite and combine The Odyssey and Moby-Dick, you would get ‘The Rathbones’. Janice Clark’s singular debut, a gothic adventure novel set in New England, is one of the most intriguing new novels this year (for the imagery and originality, if nothing else). Lest you think I jest about the strains of Charles Addams woven throughout the novel, consider this passage:
I reached for the lowest rung but it was too high for me. I beckoned to the crows. They twined my hair around their beaks and lifted, wings beating black in the gloom, until I could reach the bottom rung and pull myself up.
Mercy, the teenage, dark-haired protagonist, is the diminutive scion of the Rathbones. She is the last member of the Rathbones, a prominent New England whaling family that enjoyed unparalleled success due to their highly irregular methods. Moses, the prolific progenitor and original patriarch of the family, considered it his mission to harvest the abundant whales. He was particularly attuned to the sperm (and, if needed, right) whales off the coast – a mystic gift he passed off to his many, many sons. Generations later, the whaling heyday has passed and Mercy’s continued seclusion in the failing Rathbone manse abruptly ends. After interrupting a forbidden coupling, she and her cousin Mordecai set off in a boat to find her long missing brother and, possibly, her perpetually absent father. What they discover will bring light to the darkest parts of the family tree.
‘The Rathbones’ is a literary debut I will remember for many months to come. It’s a starkly imagined portrait of a declining dynastic family. Beginning with Moses and ending with Mercy, the Rathbones are a mysterious family with an even more mysterious history. Moses, who dreamt of building a family to harvest the whales, takes on a succession of seventeen wives, producing innumerable sons. But where are the daughters? And are all the sons truly his? The entire novel has an ethereal, hypnotic quality that lends a soft focus to the tragedies that must have been occurring. The story of Hepzibah, successor of a previous wife and predecessor of the next, illustrates this point quite well.
All the older Rathbone sons slept here, those aged twelve to twenty, all the crews just in from the sea that morning, a ship’s worth. Six men crewed each whaleboat, three whaleboats served each ship. While one sailed with Hepzibah, the others slept. She was passed from boy to boy, tossed from bed to bed like a bale, turned on each capstan, hauled and harvested until she brimmed with her own small ocean. By the time she left the hall at three bells in the last watch on seasick legs, whatever fish swam in her might have been spawned as much from the swirling plankton of the sea as from any particular son.
The novel contains many tragedies but maintains an unaffected air throughout – it’s a bit odd, but it’s also beautiful and surreal. Admittedly the entire novel is a bit odd, from the diminutive protagonist to the pet crows to the distant mother and the missing brother. It’s also a compelling literary saga inspired by The Odyssey. If you like your fiction with a tinge of mythology or your heroine straight out of Charles Addams’ imagination, pick up ‘The Rathbones’. If you like beautiful, bleak imagery or the forbidden tangled mysteries of a mythical family, pick up ‘The Rathbones’. If you like gothic, literary adventures or novels with a heavy seafaring theme, pick up ‘The Rathbones’*. If I haven’t convinced you with any of the above, you may want to skip Janice Clark’s brilliant, utterly original fiction debut – whatever floats your boat.