(Alfred A. Knopf, 2021)
I received Landslide, Susan Conley’s fourth riveting novel, as a gift from someone who knew I was living in Maine and thought I could identify with it. As a New Yorker with a science background, I was skeptical at first. But I know the state and its people, and the author won me over with her realistic depiction of Mainers. Conley reels in her readers like the fishermen in the book’s coastal setting.
Named after the Fleetwood Mac song, the novel portrays a woman finding hope and strength even as the foundations of her life are shifting. Right at the start, the introspective narrator, Jill Archer, lays out the difficulties that permeate this domestic drama. She is raising two teenage sons, Sam and Charlie. She refers to them as “the wolves” because as they grow more distant from her, their mysterious silences make them seem like another species.
Two traumas set an undertone of conflict. Sam, the younger son, is devastated after witnessing his best friend fall from a bridge and drown. Jill’s husband Kit, raised in a fishing family, has eked out a living on the ocean, only to be seriously injured in a ship explosion. He’s left with a broken leg and internal bleeding in a Nova Scotia hospital, seven hours away.
With simple, understated prose mirroring the economy of words typical of Down East folks, Conley captures the people of Sewell, the fishing village where Kit has spent his entire life. As her husband recovers from surgery, Jill juggles his needs in Canada with her challenges at home to maintain a routine for her sons as they grapple with the typical adolescent issues of sex, drugs, and Instagram posts. To add to her anxiety, Jill suspects Kit is having an affair with a female crew member. Her confusion is set against the backdrop of a faltering industry based on the unpredictability of the sea and its destructive effect on the community. Jill, a professional filmmaker, hopes to save the village by bringing its plight to the public’s attention in a documentary.
A major undercurrent of the story is isolation. Unlike Kit, Jill is not from Sewell. She’s the daughter of working class parents from Harwich, a mill town further north, and studied film in England. She has a hard time fitting in with the residents who view her as suspect because of her “outsider status,” her artistry, and her tendency to “wear clogs in winter.” And the locals can be distant in their stoicism.
“I know it’s a Maine thing, this withholding,” she ponders. “But sometimes it seems like a competition to see how much bad news you can take without cracking.”
Jill’s loneliness, and that of her children, is further heightened, and symbolized, by their living alone on Kit’s family-owned island, accessible only by boat from the mainland. When it becomes too cold to winter over, she and the boys move into her father-in-law Jimmy’s house across the water. But Jimmy accuses her of not taking care of his son in the hospital. She becomes progressively alienated from her kids, husband, in-laws, and the community.
Charlie, in 11th grade, wants to move in with his girlfriend and her parents. Sixteen-year-old Sam becomes increasingly unmoored, wanting to drop out of school, getting suspended for smoking pot, and ultimately running away. Conley sensitively illustrates how an adolescent acts when he is alone in grief that is hard for him to express in words.
Further, as she senses her husband slipping away, Jill turns to memories of their youthful romance. Short vignettes convey that what they had was strong and should withstand the current tests of their three-month separation and Kit’s indiscretions. Yet those tender remembrances only contrast with Jill’s growing doubts about her husband.
The author’s creative strength is in her recounting of small events that paint a bigger picture. Jill discovers her husband’s tee shirt on the bathroom door of his vessel’s female cook. She finds weed in Sam’s jean pocket. Like Jill, the reader understands that “the pot…is a symbol of how things are unraveling…The pot isn’t just pot. The shirt in the bathroom…isn’t just a shirt.”
Conley’s sparse prose eloquently tells a story of loss, forgiveness, and importantly, sense of self. As her sons struggle to find their identities, navigating first love, marijuana use, independence, and survivor’s guilt, Jill is finding her place in everyone’s life, and in her own existence. The many lyrical images of the sea—“The ocean follows the car like a conscience,” and, “…the ocean sounds like thousands of pieces of glass breaking on the rocks,”—reflect Jill’s mounting emotional turmoil.
Conley has written four other critically-acclaimed books, including her previous best-selling novel, Elsey Come Home (Penguin, 2018). She won the Maine Book Award and the Maine Award for Publishing Excellence. In a literary landscape dominated by men, with Landslide, she has once again demonstrated her ability to contribute meaningfully to the fiction genre.
As the mother of three boys, I found this work to be completely relatable as it reveals the tension inherent in giving the wolves freedom and setting boundaries. Like other Maine writers such as Elizabeth Cooke and Lily King, Conley tells of resilience in the face of harsh reality. But Landslide is also a love letter to the people one cares about most, despite the trials they present.