In John Benditt‘s, The Boatmaker, I experienced a push-pull effect as the novel brought me in, then pushed me to the point where I almost quit reading it before it pulled me back completely. I enjoyed the novel; even more so for its ability to win me back as a reader.
The Boatmaker is roughly an allegory. The main character, who is simply called the Boatmaker, lives on Small Island far off the coast of some Scandanianesque country in a late 1800’s world similar to our own. He is not formally educated. He lives with a sense of loss and self-doubt. As a boy, his older brother died while sailing with his father. For the rest of his life, he tries to win his mother’s affection while she drinks and grieves for her dead child, whom to her was perfect. The Boatmaker’s parents no longer live together and both are terrible drunks. Most of the men on Small Island, including the Boatmaker, have problems with alcohol. What the Boatmaker does have is an innate ability to craft objects with wood. He can feel the shape of the thing as he creates it.
The reader first sees this ability when the Boatmaker decides to build a boat and leave Small Island. His journey takes him to Big Island, and then to the Mainland and the Capital of his country. Through this journey, the Boatmaker learns more about money, which was fairly unneeded on Small Island. He also learns about religion, the need to belong, trust, and his craft as a builder of things.
The Capital is embroiled in civil unrest as a prominent Jewish family, the Lippsted’s, becomes more entwined with the King. The country has borrowed heavily from the Lippsted’s and Jews have seen their station improve under the modern-leaning monarch.
What turned me off from the book was about halfway through as the Boatmaker takes on a more prominent role in some of these situations, it seemed like an antiquated version of Forest Gump. The Boatmaker isn’t stupid, but there’s a simpleness to him and other characters take advantage of him or steer his path. Think Lieutenant Dan taking Forest Gump under his wing in a not so altruistic way. At times, the Boatmaker’s passive simplicity wore on me, as well as the coincidental way in which he finds himself involved with power-brokers in the Capital. At the end of the novel, the reader does learn that the coincidences are not quite so coincidental as we finally learn his name.
The Boatmaker is a coming-of-age story about a man displaced. I found myself wondering what women thought of this book, which is so much a male-oriented story. The female characters in the novel are a hateful mother; a woman separated from her husband and in love with the Boatmaker; a prostitute; an old widow, whose family station has fallen; and a beautiful, educated women from a prosperous family. The Boatmaker’s relationship with women moves between loneliness, distance, anger, and protective affection. Is there something universal about this narrative? Is the context such that the role of women in the novel is understandable?
In the end, the simplicity of the character and the novel won me over. I also enjoyed the gentleness of the language. There are no sweeping descriptions as in All The Light We Cannot See, which I previously read before this book. Instead, the language is to the point, like it belongs on a drafting table, penciled in with exact lines along a grid. The religious tension between the Christians and the Jews in the novel echoes the religious tension between Muslims and Christians and Jews in our current time. The reader sees what happens to the Jews in the novel, forecasts what will happen in their future, and senses the reflections in the twenty-first century.