Glass, who won the National Book Award for her debut novel, “Three Junes,” is a master builder of fictional characters, an expert at laying out the architecture of entire lives. But sometimes “Vigil Harbour” evokes the feeling of an overgrown garden. There’s enough material here for two or three separate novels, and Glass’s maximalism creates some diffusion of the theme as the reader is presented with almost too many competing interests to follow. (Among the most enchanting of his various threads is the perhaps fantastical story of Issa, Austin’s longtime fiancée, whose magic coat and eccentric personality indicate she could be some kind of sea creature posing as a human, but this thread doesn’t feel fully integrated into the story.)
Some thematic issues also seem slightly unresolved, especially when it comes to politics. Following Vigil Harbor’s run-in with eco-terrorists, when a “hipster newspod” reporter calls Margo’s salon a “haven of domestic privilege” and claims it’s easy, “in a place like this, to ignore social justice issues,” Margo reacts with defensiveness and annoyance. Her students, Margo fumes, read “‘Hiroshima,’ they read plays about revolutions and poetry about hate crimes. had an upbringing in the shadows cast over civilization far greater than those cast by any rainforest.(The destruction of the world’s rainforests is the main concern of the book’s violent eco-terrorists.) “You can grow towards that light even in a place like this,” Margo insists. “See it as decadent if you like, but it’s not that simple.”
Right now, Margo, a generally likable, even wise character, presents herself as a troubling immunity to the awkward questions of what the privileged among us might owe the rest of the planet. How can she be so sure of her own moral standing? It’s a confusing scene, perhaps meant to show the conflicting impulses that make this woman human, but it raises compelling ethical questions without fully engaging with them. It looks more like a recognition of this territory than an illumination.
Where this book shines is in its portrayals of grief and uncertainty. Almost every character in “Vigil Harbor” has suffered great personal loss, the kind that their privilege cannot protect them from. As they ponder what to do and how to be, these people often feel dismoored, and their sadness beautifully echoes the sense of ecological loss that so many of us feel. (On a trip to California to visit his daughter, Mike notes “the dearth of birdsong,” but also takes solace in the natural beauty that remains – and new life: his daughter will have a baby.)
One of the most moving moments of “Vigil Harbor” comes late in the book. Brecht, traumatized but recovering, wrote to his worried mother after returning to New York: “I am on an island whose coastline is threatened, there are guards, cops, rangers and all kinds of people in uniform who watch for trouble, there are flood basins where there used to be basketball courts, there are summer times when the temperature hits 100 degrees five days in a row, and there can be storms, bombs , contagions, pandemics and pandemonium, but I’m fine.