I took my love, I took it down / I climbed a mountain and I turned around / And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills / ‘Til the landslide brought me down
— Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac
The power of music can sometimes be a light switch. When in the dark, we can turn it on and all is better. And like that distant song from the past, when love seems to elude us, all we need to do is reach back, remember, and love will find its way back.
In Susan Conley’s new novel “Landslide,” light and a way back are what the Archer family needs.
Bring together a life-changing moment, the challenge of raising two teenage boys and a mother realizing life could have been different, amidst a Maine fishing community struggling to contain its way of life, and you have the makings of a good story.
In Conley’s novel, the Archers search for light from the darkness brought upon them by a devastating accident and the impact it has both on the family and on each of them as individuals. Hope and the redemptive power of love will be their beacon as they move from darkness towards light.
Conley, who grew up in Maine, is an award-winning author of five books. She is a founder of the Telling Room, a youth creative writing center in Portland, where she lives and teaches on the faculty of the Stonecoast writing program.
In the fictional Maine fishing community of Sewall, Jill Archer spends her time taking care of her two teenage sons while making long trips to Nova Scotia where her fisherman husband, Kit, convalesces after a swordfishing accident. In between, she coaxes her career along as a documentary filmmaker capturing the tragic demise of the very place where she lives and is a mother parenting rebellious teens while living an isolated life on their island home on Penobscot Bay.
Her sons, 17-year-old Charlie and 16-year-old Sam, are not making it easy. She calls them “the wolves.” With their hormonal urges vying for time against the “here I am” moments all families deal with, there is something else lurking. Sam is dealing with guilt. Two years earlier Sam watched his closest friend fall through the rotted boards on a bridge and drown. How he copes with that loss is through a myriad of spontaneous destructive behaviors. Survivor’s guilt? Yes. But, with an absent father, it is also a cry for constant reassurance that everything will be OK.
Charlie is in love and is looking for that next chapter of life — independence. But he struggles with finding his own space within the cramped confines of island life. Life is not easy when it involves those long drives to the hospital to visit his father or when his mother relies on him to rein in his brother from the sometimes dangerous, often unpredictable, behavior that is Sam’s nature. Both boys obsess differently over the eventual return of their father to the home. For Jill, she waits and hopes, too.
“It’s late afternoon at the end of a long October when the Fleetwood Mac song comes on. We’re halfway down the peninsula, and I tell the wolves I was raised on Stevie Nicks, so could they please let me listen to the whole thing. Because Sam, the younger one, has a bad habit of changing the station.”
The family’s pack-like protective instincts reveal a sense of alertness that never rests. Who then is the alpha of this story? I believe it to be Conley’s use of the island home, keeping the family grounded to place and to each other while the reader wonders with each turn of the page: What’s next?
Jill is an outsider, a mill-town girl having grown up two hours away. Kit is pure fisherman, knowing only one home and one way of life. Jill, having traveled to Europe while pursuing a career and love, returns to Maine finding Kit and a way of life she does not recognize. Now, boats, fishing, quotas, water and winter are at the front of her mind, while the “wolves” constantly need to eat.
Island life is hard enough for two parents raising a family, let alone one making a go of it with two teenage boys while the other heals and tries to find himself all over again. With the bills mounting, marital strain raising questions of infidelity, teenage rebellion and the fishing industry that sustains it all beginning to crumble, a landslide of emotion grips this story, and Conley captures both the terrain and emotions completely.
The pace of this story moves like that of a wolf protecting its own — smart, unpredictable, aggressive, at times impulsive, which might lead some to feel the story is a bit chaotic.
I did not find it that way. The writing is deliberate, sparse, yet compelling, and often beautiful at exemplifying what unexpected change does to a family already in crisis, struggling from within amid the external forces they often have no control over. This is an exceptional piece of storytelling.
By Susan Conley
Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, hardcover, $26.95