“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” With these words Pat Conroy begins his masterpiece, The Prince of Tides (published in 1986). I’d never heard of it when it was chosen as our book of the month at book club. It’s now one of my favourite novels.
Partly based on his own life, Conroy tells the story of the Wingo family, from the viewpoint of Tom Wingo, son of the beautiful and distant Lila and the abusive Henry, twin brother to the troubled Savannah, and the younger brother of Luke. The Wingos grow up on the small Melrose island, off the coast of South Carolina. Henry Wingo makes his living trawling for shrimp, but his hair-brained business ideas keep the family in poverty. The Wingos are viewed as trash by the high society and well-off residents of the nearby town of Colleton, where the children have to go to school. To be admitted to this group of elite, becomes Lila’s obsession.
The story is told in flashbacks over a period of fourty years, and begins when Tom, a former footballer and teacher, is called to New York after Savannah’s latest suicide attempt. She’s a successful poet, but there is something dark and sinister from her childhood that haunts her, something Tom has forgotten. He recalls both pleasant and terrible memories of growing up, but has buried the terrible memory that tore his family apart. When the siblings finally confront what happened their childhood “seemed part elegy, part nightmare”, and “there is no magic to nightmares.” New York provides an escape for Tom as well – his wife, Sadie, has confessed to an affair, and he’s been jobless for some time.
Savannah’s suicide attempts stem from a horrific childhood encounter, resulting in vivid schizophrenic hallucinations. Black Dobermans glow in the dark and snap their big teeth at her while menstruating angels with broken necks hang from the walls. They talk to her, telling her to kill herself. When Tom arrives, Savannah is receiving treatment at a psychiatric hospital, and refuses to see him. In order to try and understand how he can help his sister, he makes appointments with her psychiatrist, Dr Susan Lowenstein, and ends up examining his own painful past, and embarks on a journey not only to save his sister, but himself.
The Prince of Tides – the title of one of Savannah’s poems, dedicated to Luke – is an epic saga about the “ineffable ties of family”, how choices made in the past echoes into the future, about love, about the ties to landscape. It’s a story that is both an elegy and mystery novel.
This book is haunting and contains some of the most excruciatingly beautiful prose ever written. Writers are often told not to use too many adjectives, but Conroy’s descriptions are so rich and poetic, I wanted to savour every exquisite word. The writing is melodic, harmonious like a symphony, every word meticulously chosen.
Notable passage (it was almost impossible to pick just one):
“I was the son of a beautiful, word-struck mother and I longed for her touch many years after she felt no obligation to touch me. But I will praise her for the rest of my life for teaching me to seek out the beauty of nature in all its shapes and fabulous designs. It was my mother who taught me to love the lanterns of night fishermen in the starry darkness and the flight of brown pelicans skimming the curly breakers at dawn. It was she who made me take notice of the perfect coinage of sand dollars, the shapes of flounders inlaid in sand like the silhouettes of ladies in cameos, the foundered wreck near the Colleton Bridge that pulsed with the commerce of otters. She saw the world through a dazzling prism of authentic imagination. Lila Wingo would take the raw material of a daughter and shape her into a poet and a psychotic. She preserved for me the multiform appearances of my life as a child, the portraitures and still lifes visible through the blooming window of time. She reigned as the queen of exquisite imagery in the eye of a worshipful son, yet I cannot forgive her for not telling me about the dream that sustained her during my childhood, the one that would cause the ruin of my family and the death of one of us.”
Rating: 5 out of 5