Image courtesy of Flatiron Books / Provided by official website.
W.S. Winslow’s debut novel, The Northern Reach, is a deep dive into several generations of several families who live in or near the coastal town of Wellbridge, Maine. The years and dramas documented within these pages are presented in an economical fashion, with the entire book running fewer than 250 pages, but still somehow the stories are comprehensive, encompassing relationships, tragedies and points of historical importance for the characters involved.
Each chapter in the book is preceded by a family tree that places individuals in a chronological timeframe, and the book jumps back and forth between time periods and families. To be honest, this jumping back and forth is an interesting structuring device, but it simultaneously proves frustrating. Rather than feeling like a cohesive novel, The Northern Reach feels like a series of short stories woven together by sometimes glancing references to other events and people that readers may remember from previous passages.
That said, each of these stories has great value and is highly enjoyable to read. Winslow has obvious skill with turns of phrase and her many descriptions of the cold environs along the coast. She is masterful at detailing the physical surroundings of her characters and equally masterful at chiseling away at their inner-souls, deepest fears and troubled silences. The rhythm of her prose sings as it meanders between these physical and emotional worlds.
After a while, not being able to place a character in a larger context is perfectly fine because these tasty novelistic morsels are meant to be enjoyed as snapshots. If the reader is unable to make the collage in their mind, no harm, no foul. The Northern Reach still entices.
The families profiled in this work of fiction are the Baineses, Moodys, Martins and Edgecombs. Winslow tracks their stories from the final years of the 19th century through the 1970s. The opening passage involves Edith Baines and a horrible accident at sea that greatly impacts her family and what hope she still had in life. What follows is page after page of distraught relations, years-long grudges, touching love stories and complex familial webs. In rendering this community in a realistic manner, the reader is left both impressed by Winslow’s mapping skills and also overwhelmed by the level of details. It’s best to let the prose live, breathe and evolve throughout the chapters; trying to understand everything is probably too Herculean a task, but also unnecessary.
The Northern Reach is a strong debut from a novelist with a wondrous sense of place and a fine skill at detailing small family dramas that seem tremendous in the moment. Winslow is an expert crafter of lives lived and lives interconnected.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
The Northern Reach by W.S. Winslow. 240 pages. Flatiron Books. Click here for more information.