A therapist friend of mine once said that the worst thing he could hear from new clients was that they had had a perfect childhood. ‘That’s six months’ work right there!’ he’d groan. Pat Conroy’s chunkster novel of a deeply dysfunctional family, The Prince of Tides, is an extended testimony to his words. The Wingos of South Carolina live on Melrose Island, an area of outstanding natural beauty, and the narrative marks a sharp contrast between the lush gorgeousness of the setting and the flawed and damaged humanity who inhabit it. This is Eden, but a paradise in which Adam loses money hand over fist and blacks Eve’s eye when she screams at him that he’ll never amount to anything. The three children, Luke, Savannah and Tom bond together fiercely to survive their parents’ disastrous characters and the picaresque fate that seems to be their inevitable lot. But while children and adolescents may be able to run fast to avoid the encroaching shadow of a difficult upbringing, there comes a time when they must slow up, and darkness overtakes them. When the novel opens, Tom Wingo, out of work and in trouble in his marriage, learns that Savannah has made another suicide attempt. He decides to go to New York where she has been living, to recount the family history to Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein, in the hope that it may bring both him and his sister a measure of peace.
From earliest childhood, Savannah had been chosen to bear the weight of the family’s accumulated psychotic energy. Her luminous sensitivity left her open to the violence and disaffection of our household and we used her to store the bitterness of our mordant family chronicle. I could see it now: One member of our family, by a process of artificial but deadly selection, is nominated to be the lunatic, and all neurosis, wildness and displaced suffering settled like dust in the eaves and porches of that tenderest, most vulnerable psyche.’
This is the kind of chronicle that Conroy writes, seven hundred pages with his big heart and his overstuffed thesaurus on his sleeve. But he is very astute about the nature and consequences of suffering, and the Wingos are a pitifully plausible tribe. Father Henry Wingo is a gifted shrimper, but a frustrated entrepreneur. His wild and untenable schemes for making money repeatedly leave the family on the brink of bankruptcy. He has tireless energy and enthusiasm to bequeath to his children and the breathless buoyancy of the dreamer, but it’s his fists and his temper that they fear. The mother, Lila Wingo is frankly a piece of work. A social climber with a pretty face and a will of iron, she holds the family together by emotional blackmail and pulls it apart with her chronic dissatisfaction. What they do to their children is bad enough, what happens to the children at the hands of fate is even worse, but the greatest crime enacted upon them is the pact of silence that their parents impose. ‘I dwelt in a world where nothing was explained to children except the supremacy of the concept of loyalty,’ Tom writes. Though the wounds healed, the obligation to pretend that they’d never happened in the first place was undoubtedly the most damaging and lasting burden of all.
But before you get the wrong idea of this book and think it is a litany of disasters, I should point out that narrator Tom is the most idealising of the children, the most loyal to the family experience, the greatest believer that the sum of his siblings adds up to far more than their individual worth. His worship of the natural world in which he was raised and his memories of the unexpected and magical triumphs that he shared with Luke and Savannah make up a large part of this narrative. In fact, part of what Tom has to learn from Susan Lowenstein is the necessity of accepting the bad parts of the past, and of integrating them into his life. While they work together in New York, Susan sends Tom her disaffected adolescent son, Bernard, for private football coaching. Susan’s family has issues of its own, as her famous violinist husband dominates his wife and son, insisting that Bernard become a violinist too and sparing very little love for either of them. Bernard and Tom will develop a mutual respect for one another, and Tom will fall in love with Susan, and this surrogate family helps in no small measure to restore his faith in himself and his capacities for love and for teaching.
Rich or poor, families have a fearsome ability to be hellish in Conroy’s book. But the hugeness of life, its limitless capacity to surprise and shock, delivers credits and debits pretty much even-handedly. The trick is to hang in there long enough to reach a place of understanding. This was a vivid and engrossing book, bursting at the seams with triumphs and disasters written by a man who clearly disagrees with Kipling that there is anything imposter-ish about either of them. It is also an intelligent and sensitive study of trauma and dysfunction. Whether you like it or not will depend most probably on how you take to the language. Conroy packs his prose with lush, lyrical and overblown imagery, every sentence is a rich verbal meal. When you’ve got 700 dense pages of this, it’s inevitable that some parts won’t hit the mark. ‘By growing up we had committed the crime of blurring those distinctions by which my mother defined herself; we also provided her manumission from the narrowness of that flawed self-definition.’ ‘When [my mother] smiled at me, I felt cleansed in the secret grotto of her highest affection.’ ‘With Luke in tears, you could learn something of the melancholy of kings, the solemnity of a scarred lion banished from the pride.’ These sorts of sentences trembled on the verge of naffness for me, but they were balanced out by plenty of others that were arresting or beautiful. The different elements of the story in the past and the present work extremely well together and the Wingos I thought were a terrific creation, right up there among my top five dysfunctional families. Spirited and generous, violent and excessive, this is a novel that gives the reader everything it’s got. Wallow in it, and then book a retreat in the sparse prose health farm.