Thisbe Nissen's second novel, OSPREY ISLAND, is a tale of
homecomings gone wrong, summer jobs turned horrific and long-hidden
secrets reveals in the aftermath of a deadly fire on a resort
island off the eastern seaboard in the late 1980s. The set-up ---
and one of the major plot points --- will remind readers of
Dirty Dancing, a fact that Nissen wisely acknowledges early
in the text but that nonetheless gives the book a certain sense of
over-familiarity. However, Nissen's knack for creating characters
whose emotions and motivations ring true drives the novel and
allows her to render indelible, well-crafted scenes of striking
OSPREY ISLAND's major plot is a compact story, but the novel
explores a multitude of smaller stories. At its heart is Squee, a
little boy whose mother is killed in the aforementioned fire and
whose alcoholic father is a danger to himself and others. Suzy and
Roddy, two former island residents who have returned and brought
various demons with them, struggle to help Squee and to define
their own smoldering relationship. Roddy's imperious mother, who
knows every secret but cannot bend this situation to her will, is a
key figure and perhaps Nissen's finest creation in the book.
Nissen's first book --- and still her best --- was the finely
wrought collection of short stories OUT OF THE GIRLS' ROOM AND INTO
THE NIGHT. Neither her first novel THE GOOD PEOPLE OF NEW YORK nor
OSPREY ISLAND is as consistently strong as that collection, but the
new novel shines when its chapters most resemble a Nissen short
story. For example, the chapter titled "The Broodiness of Hens" is
a highlight of the book despite (or perhaps because of) its
departure from the main plot to pursue back story and character
development. It is here that Roddy's mother --- the overly
symbolically named Eden --- comes to life on the page in a way that
makes her the book's de facto center.
Similarly, the chapter titled "Grief-Spurred, Swift-Swooping" is a
devastating passage featuring Squee's father Lance and a young
Irish girl named Brigid, who is on Osprey Island to work at the
tourist lodge for the summer. Nissen builds a suspenseful
exploration of sexual gamesmanship gone horribly awry through a
series of small but seemingly inexorable moments and decisions.
Both chapters confirm Nissen's mastery of the short form and are
the most powerful moments in her larger narrative.
The accumulation of such small moments makes OSPREY ISLAND a
gripping, if somewhat uneven, novel.
Reviewed by Rob Cline on January 14, 2011