Review: Violence and hospitality in a seaside town
Vigil Harbor, in Julia Glass's novel of the same name, is an insular community that time seems to have mostly passed by—until we look more closely at its residents’ lives and see how contemporary events are affecting them, even unfolding within the town itself. Despite its seemingly sleepy ambiance, the fictional peninsula in Massachusetts “where you will meet any number of people who claim to be thirteenth generation,” we learn early on, has war “stitched deeply into its lore.” This novel shares a complex tale about the town’s history of close encounters with violence, but also about the open and helpful community that unintentionally enables some of the calamities that ensue.
Brecht, a young man who has returned home to Vigil Harbor as he recovers from the trauma of surviving a terrorist attack in New York City’s Union Square, is the first character we meet in this kaleidoscopic novel. He is a college dropout who now works in landscaping for one of the town’s only non-white residents, an unassumingly gifted arborist and quiet family man named Celestino. It is Celestino’s past connection to Ernesto, a mysterious climate scientist, that sets the town on a collision with new types of war being waged across America; that is, eco-terrorist attacks by the Oceloti, a group determined to stop the destruction of the rainforest.
When Brecht was still a child, his father died in the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic—one of the few indicators of when the events in the novel take place. Brecht is also an amateur poet. “The problem with my poems, I realize, is that I’m trying too hard to tell stories,” he reflects, deciding to try to create portraits instead. The chapters in this book weave together many stories but are also a collection of portraits, rotating among nine characters, opening and concluding with Brecht.
In the aftermath of collective trauma, how does community hold up? How can we practice the responsible hospitality that our faith requires in a dangerous world?
Not everyone is who they appear to be in Vigil Harbor, perhaps something that can be pulled off because of the trusting nature of a place where some do not lock their doors. Petra, a woman posing as a journalist making a film about Brecht’s stepfather, Austin, and a prominent architect, turns out to share a connection with him to an otherworldly woman they both knew years ago in New York. While people feel uncomfortable around Ernesto and wonder why Petra does not have a camera, they persist in offering hospitality to these outsiders. Both take advantage of this to breach acceptable boundaries.
Yet one of the most intriguing plots in the novel centers around Issa, a charismatic young woman who was the lover of both Austin and Petra. Issa, who sometimes walks around New York City without shoes and has no navel, claims she is from a city that was swallowed by the ocean. She came to warn about the “poisoning and pillaging of ocean life” through her beautiful, detailed and lifelike drawings. Yet she can also be reticent and does not fully explain herself: “Don’t try to find words for us,” she pleads with Austin when he asks who sent her.
Austin, thinking Issa delusional, urges her to go to counseling and refuses to help with her project. Eventually, Issa throws herself into the sea, an act Austin judges to be suicide, while Petra believes it could be a sign that she was telling the truth about her non-human origins. Maybe, Petra speculates, she was “better than human: more loving, more transporting, more innocent and giving.” In a time of climate crisis, is Issa prophetic? What is our ability to understand messages when they come from those who are different from us? The book explores our willingness to consider things we do not have evidence for, a practice familiar to Catholics.
Celestino’s wife Connie describes herself as someone who is perhaps “emotionally proprioceptive”—“that I know my spiritual place among others.” Yet as the novel’s events unfold, she feels: “I’ve been a fool to believe that. Suddenly my orientation to the space around me isn’t what I thought it was. My emotional balance is shot.” From the retired schoolteacher coping with a divorce to the welcoming neighbors coming to terms with a betrayal of their kindness and then to Brecht realizing the end of a fantasy he developed after a friend’s death, much recalibration is happening in Vigil Harbor.
Speaking about the terrorist responsible for the Boat Basin Bombing, the latest attack to hit New York City, Connie muses that “his flaw is fanaticism, not malice. The world is full of fanatics now, a dime a dozen, and many of them are justified in their drive to destroy the destroyers. They become killers despite themselves. Or is a killer merciless and malignant by nature?” The novel provides us with many opportunities to reflect on how we confront what seems to be evil in our midst, or even when it is distant, and to ask how we might effectively work against those evils in a way that is just and loving.
“I’m on an island whose shoreline is threatened,” says Brecht. “There are guards and cops and rangers and all kinds of uniformed people keeping an eye for trouble, there are flood basins where there used to be basketball courts, there are stretches of summer where the temperature hits one hundred degrees five days in a row, and there may loom storms, bombs, contagions, pandemics and pandemonium, but I’m doing all right.” For a character whose stated desire is to live in a safe world, adapting to what he is faced with instead—and making that feel as safe as possible—is a major accomplishment. “Making things that don’t fall apart” is Brecht’s response to a college essay assignment that asks him to describe his signature passion.
In the aftermath of collective trauma, how does community hold up? How can we practice the responsible hospitality that our faith requires in a dangerous world? Who will we accept as our prophets? These are just a few of the questions raised by this sprawling novel.
Brecht tells Celestino and Connie’s young son Raul that the best teachers make you curious. The same can be said for the best novelists, whose writing encourages us to look at our own surroundings and inner compasses with the same careful detachment we apply to our reading of their characters. A close reading of this newest book from National Book Award winner Julia Glass incites us to do just that.