In her debut novel, “The Northern Reach,” ninth-generation Mainer W.S. Winslow records the hope, fears, resentments and regrets of four families in one small fictional Maine town, across the span of a century.

A novel in stories, the book opens in 1977 Wellbridge, Maine, with the embittered and increasingly demented Edith Baines staring out her windows at a full-sailed schooner that doesn’t move, despite the howling wind and the insistent current out in the Northern Reach. She meditates on the one-year anniversary of the boating accident that killed her lobster fisherman husband and one of their sons – Mason, Edith’s favorite of the two.

The opening chapter sets the dark tone for the novel as a whole. Edith thinks poisonous thoughts about almost everyone, even her dead husband. “In forty-eight years together they were seldom completely miserable.”

Edith hates her daughter-in-law Margery and is perpetually disappointed in Eldridge, her surviving son. The immobile vessel calls to her, to the point where she runs into the surf on a dark winter night.

The narrative then moves backward to Edith’s youth, when she fell under the seductive spell of local bad boy Royal Edgecomb and learned how good it feels to be bad – and how bad it feels to experience an unwanted pregnancy.

Other characters dominate additional chapters as they unfold. Frank Lawson, the illegitimate son of a prominent business man, travels to Bangor to claim his birthright, only to be spurned by his blood kin. He grows into an abusive father who pushes his own son into leaving home to fight World War II.

A chapter is devoted to the plight of Liliane Baines, wife of Edith’s son Mason who’d been, in 1966, an American merchant mariner. A native of France, Liliane grates under the scrutiny of her mother-in-law and enjoys the company of a new male neighbor who knows how to make a good cassoulet and scandalizes the locals by bringing the wrong kind of salad to a pot-luck dinner.

Edith is always good for an icy put-down that reveals more about herself than she could imagine. Liliane possesses enough sense of humor to weather her mother-in-law’s sarcasm.

With its fractured chronology, “The Northern Reach” takes its time in building any kind of narrative velocity, sometimes seeming to move as swiftly as that suspended schooner Edith has been staring at all night. The mood is frequently grim, and when there is humor, it’s usually of a jet-black variety.

Some readers will be reminded of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittredge books. There’s no one central character here, but there are deep familial and social connections among the cast. Lawsons, Baineses, Moodys and Martins dominate the dramatis personae, but the family trees have plenty of offshoots.

The supernatural seems to impinge more strongly as the narrative unfolds. In later chapters, the reality of life after death is undisputed, as Alice Culligan witnesses her own demise and follows her corpse as it moves physically to its ultimate disposal. She also hears her children reveal secrets about themselves, their father and Alice herself. The chapter plays out like Tom and Huck attending their own funerals, with a Down East supernatural twist.

Winslow seems to loosen up when trafficking with ghosts. Maybe there’s something about the afterlife that appeals to her, the artificiality of the situations allowing her to let her imagination travel far. Her account of the haunting of Albert Edgecomb is both funny and scary. She writes: “Mother rattling the kitchen pots, Uncle Hartwell stomping around the attic where he shot himself, and that homely red-haired girl in her bloody pinafore, just standing at the foot of Albert’s bed, picking her nose. At least she’s quiet.”

“The Northern Reach” is an ambitious novel, and by the final chapter, in which Mason Baines’ daughter returns to her hometown, it has more than rewarded the time it takes to read these tales. Winslow’s ambition should be celebrated, but the novel might have benefited from a simpler structure that would not have required a series of family trees to follow.

Winslow roots Wellbridge firmly in place along the Maine coast, a town not to be found on any map but alive with verisimilitude and free from cliché. She knows this imaginary town well and understands its people deeply. She captures her characters at their best and their worst, reflecting the aching humanity of their plights and dilemmas. With precision, she points out issues of class, religion and ethnicity. The locals are suspicious of the high falutin’ airs and imprecise accents of the French Canadians in town. Everyone scrabbles for money, and everyone has a different opinion of how much alcohol their neighbors drink.

Poetic, harrowing, knowing and keenly observed, “The Northern Reach” has much to recommend it. Winslow is off to a creditable start as a novelist. Her vision of the past and its consequences for the present are achingly familiar, yet still freshly unique.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry


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