Desert Isle Keeper
Sometimes, taking a risk on a new author and their first novel can work out to be a lovely surprise. Reading Fogland Point by Doug Burgess is a case in point.
Little Compton, a tiny town east of pretty much everything on the North Eastern Atlantic coast of America, is steeped in history in all its forms, but nothing happens there. The shops and businesses encircle the town’s graveyard which is full of headstones bearing the same surnames going back to the town’s creation. Stories of piracy and lost Confederate gold have entwined around the life histories of the residents and whether true or not have become part of the town’s foundations.
The story has an interesting first person narrator, David Hazard. He is realistic and fairly pragmatic, but without a drop of cynicism and I liked him immediately. The tale is very much character driven, starting when David has to return home from his post at a City university after gaining his PhD. He moves in with his grandmother Maggie, to help take care of her with the loving help of the ‘Laughing Sarahs’, and run from the rumours at the University.
Maggie is one of the ‘Laughing Sarahs’, a group of elderly matriarchs who know each other’s secrets and those of the town. Constance, Irene, Emma and Maggie are the heart of this story, partly due to the esteem in which they are held within the town, their place in David’s life since he was a child, and their own entwined pasts and deep friendships. Maggie is so important to David, but sadly is being lost to the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s. This makes life slightly difficult, as she might hold the key to what happened when Emma is found dead in her kitchen. Was it an accident? Surely, no one would murder a sweet old lady? When it is discovered how much sweet Emma was worth and some strangers turn up at the funeral, things are not so clear cut.
The current Chief of Police is Billy Dyer, who had a relationship with David in High School, but is now engaged. Along with unwitting help from David, Billy tries to stay on top of the happenings in his quiet childhood home, as stories and events weave around the inhabitants of Little Compton like the thick sea fog obscuring answers that might be right in front of them. Events are further complicated by David and Billy’s feelings for each other, the re-surfacing of rumours of lost Confederate gold, the interference of Billy’s superiors and events never truly explained from the ‘Laughing Sarahs’ pasts.
When the list of dead does not stop with sweet Emma, it is obvious that some hard decisions must be made, and equally hard questions answered.
Little examples of iconic fifties American culture increase the ambience and sense of different times when we delve into the elderly matriarchs’ pasts. Norman Rockwell plates, the last Pink Princess rotary phone, ceramic owls and fifties music, every word and description feels chosen purposefully, not just to fill a sentence.
It was a true breath of fresh air to read such a well-written novel with such a beautiful narrative structure. The romance between Billy and David is approached subtly and as secondary to Little Compton’s story. Reading David’s words about his intensely private feelings explains the confusions of the individual and society regarding gender identity in a gentle, illuminating manner. Likewise, the romance is just between David and Billy; it feels too private for the reader to comment on, or judge in any way. The ‘Laughing Sarahs’ may be elderly, but they could teach us all a thing or two about acceptance and loyalty.
I think my review shows that I loved this début novel by Doug Burgess, and I dearly hope he writes more.