March 23, 2014


by Brian Doyle
320 Pages, Thomas Dunne Books

Review by J. S. Colley

I received an ebook galley for review purposes.

Declan O’Donnell, a minor character in Doyle’s first novel, Mink River, becomes the protagonist in The Plover. Tired of dealing with life on land, Declan sets out from Oregon on his fishing trawler to sail “west and west.” He brings all manner of provisions but especially little bags of almonds that he stashes throughout the boat, and copies of the works of Edmund Burke. Declan ruminates that “No man is an island, my ass. This is an island and I am that very man.” The story is anchored by his increasing unease that Burke could be right; Declan might be better off with people than without.

The Plover alternately reminded me of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey, with its crippled main character and fictional country; The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, for strange adventures at sea; Florence and Giles by John Harding, for made-up words; and the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the elements of magical realism. This book might not be for everyone. It’s a novelist’s novel; a reader’s read. For those of us who read copiously, anything different, anything unique and done well, is invigorating.

Having not read Mink River, I had no preconceived notions regarding Declan, no backstory. So, when Declan reminisces about an old friend who had suffered a great personal tragedy, I momentarily thought this old friend was actually Declan looking back on himself. In novels that incorporate magical realism, it is often left to the reader to ascertain what is real and what isn’t. But, alas, it became clear that the tragedy was not Declan’s. His old friend really was just an old friend. I was left with no real sense of why Declan was running away, other than a general crankiness toward people in general and the hinted-at troublesome relationship with his father. This is, perhaps, the one minor weakness of the story. A stronger motivation might have made the book even more powerful. (Although, in real life, I’ve known people to go adventuring on little more than a whim.)

Along the way, Declan picks up a myriad of unexpected passengers (fecking fecking feck!), not the least being a gull, who camps out on the roof of the cabin. Then the others: Piko and his damaged, mute daughter, Pipa; a strange woman who, at first, everyone thinks is a man; a man with phlegmatic, yet confident, political philosophies who wants to organize the ocean into a country and name it Pacifica; a boy with a tragic past and a voice like an angel; and a man Declan thinks of as his enemy. Each passenger unwittingly teaches Declan something, even though he’s irritated they keep him from his original goal of sailing “west and west” in solitude.

This isn’t a plot-driven novel; it’s about humanity. It is written in a stream-of-consciousness, almost poetic, narrative. You might assume this makes for difficult reading, but I found it natural and easy. There are some real gems scattered throughout, some words that make you think and, perhaps, wipe a tear from your eye. I found myself reading over my highlights more than once. Although a few reviewers suggest Doyle repeats himself (and I will admit Declan’s inner dialogue does occasionally drift over already-covered territory in the middle portion of the book), I was completely enthralled.  

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