With a hurricane and a world war on the horizon, Carin Clevidence’s debut novel examines a Long Island family’s attempts to stave off disintegration.
Carin Clevidence’s debut novel, The House on Salt Hay Road, takes as its subject three generations of the Scudder family, who inhabit a large quasi-Victorian home on the eastern tip of Long Island. Set on the eve of World War II, the setting serves as an isolated bastion at the edge of a world that will soon evolve in violent and radical ways. Clevidence attempts to examine the inner workings of a family whose expectations, beliefs, and desires continually grate against one another; at times the novel recalls such contemporary British writers as Patrick Gale and Andrew Miller, who tend to employ multiple viewpoints that operate independently or intertwine only tangentially with one another.
One of the most interesting aspects of The House on Salt Hay Road is that, while a distinctly American novel, it lacks a clear protagonist around whom the story revolves. While it feels as though the book is tailored to follow Nancy Poole, a nineteen-year-old firebrand who is first introduced defiantly galloping around Long Island on horseback, it soon becomes clear that it isn’t a single character that serves as the focal point of the book, but the house itself and all that it represents. Early on, Clevidence writes:
Inside the house was dark and cool, the rooms hushed. Nothing seemed to change here. The upholstery on the chairs in the sunroom had faded, the yellow flowers bleached nearly white, and the sewing room where her grandmother had made dresses for Nancy’s dolls had been turned into Clayton’s bedroom. But the rugs with the sand worked deep into the nap of the wool were the same, frayed a bit more around the edges. To Nancy, the house felt suddenly like something that had been given up on.
Clevidence often teases the reader with passages such as this one, beautiful and insightful, wedded to both the place and the characters that inhabit it, but her prose can too often be hampered by an overuse of similes that suggest she does not fully trust her descriptions to convey her ideas. Lines like “He bent down to retrieve the half-plucked carcass of a goose and stood holding it for a moment, like a bachelor with a baby,” or “Happiness bobbed inside her like a silver bubble,” can leave a reader feeling that The House on Salt Hay Road was constructed by two different writers.
More frustrating is that, while Clayton and Nancy and Scudder and Mavis and company are interesting characters in and of themselves, Clevidence chooses to examine them separately, in their old worlds, rather than letting their idiosyncrasies chafe against one another. Though the house ultimately becomes a tinderbox, with the characters providing the fodder, Clevidence never lights the match—rather than diving headlong into crucial moments, the narrative distance feels as though we are not watching real people but an experiment. The characters’ movements are described, their thoughts can be guessed at, but their essence remains off limits, as though behind glass.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Nancy Poole who, though originally portrayed as a woman capable of bucking the conventions of marriage and family, seems all too easily to relinquish her individuality when a handsome stranger, Robert Landgraf, shows up on the porch of the house. His arrival is enough for Nancy to jettison both her career ambitions and her disdain for Enid Snow, a former friend who has since taken up with a husband and moved west to Brooklyn. And so, when Nancy interrupts a family dinner to announce that she is going to become Mrs. Robert Landgraf, what seems like a climactic moment peters out into a few lines of dialogue, the most ambitious line of which is, “It’s very sudden. And right in the middle of dinner…”
The fine line between subtlety and avoidance is constantly blurred in The House on Salt Hay Road; moments are interrupted, but rather than examining them from different perspectives, Clevidence too often simply drops them. Much of the story feels as though it is being controlled by a skittish cameraman panning and moving and jumping from shot to shot, unsure as to whom or what to focus on.
In the third and final section of the novel, Clevidence describes the massive 1938 hurricane that ravaged the eastern coast of Long Island. Here her writing is nothing less than a bravura enterprise, in which her ability as a stylist, as well as the urgency necessary to great literature, is fully apparent:
Gripping the door frame, Clayton stepped out into the storm. The sound of the wind vibrated though him; it was as if the power of the wind lay not in its velocity but in that insistent, penetrating sound… Looking out toward the bay, he saw white water. Swirling in it, like twigs in a puddle, were enormous pieces of broken boats and scaffolding… Clayton grabbed three cork jackets and a length of line and made his way back upstairs.
Reading the final, heartbreaking result of the storm, one feels that this section might have served as the bulk of the book, with the preceding sections condensed to what is most necessary to set the stage for the hurricane. Instead, too much of The House on Salt Hay Road tries to describe the mundane and pedestrian without endowing it with the special urgency and importance that a novel of this sort requires.