It is the ultimate sacrifice: to offer up your child, flesh and blood, in exchange for basic survival. Hard terms for any parent, but what if the agreement preserves your remaining family, your ancestral land -- indeed, your way of life? And what if that child doesn't accept the settlement? Such are the dilemmas in native New Orleanian John Biguenet's much-anticipated first novel, Oyster.
The setting is Plaquemines Parish, 1957. The Petitjeans and Bruneaus have long been rival families in the oyster business. The locals regard the Petitjeans as aristocrats in the hardscrabble business of oyster farming; the family has harvested their beds for more than a century. In contrast, the Bruneaus are relative newcomers and have succeeded by the cunning and ingenuity of their patriarch, Daryl "Horse" Bruneau -- who has enlarged his holdings by acquiring the water leases of destitute families.
The feud, its origin unknown, simmered during the salad days of oyster cultivation. Now, the oil companies are cutting their canals and wiping out vast amounts of oyster fields by flushing their briny contents with the heavy salt of the ocean. This, coupled with the destruction brought about by Hurricane Corrine, means the family war now centers on fiduciary terms. The Petitjeans are the rabbit and Horse Bruneau the hound, and he will dog them until he gets what he wants: their fields.
Horse first ingratiates himself with the Petitjeans by becoming their personal banker. The local banks refuse to approve loans for the family, which has suffered disappointing oyster, shrimp and crab seasons. The Petitjeans borrow money from Horse using the house and boat -- and finally their daughter, Therese -- as collateral. Therese decides to master her destiny by luring Horse in his pirogue out to an isolated lagoon near Bayou Petitjean. Overwhelming Horse with the scent of promiscuity, she plunges a knife into his chest before adding a final admonition, "I don't get bought for the price of no damn boat, you understand."
The stage set, Biguenet trawls through his characters' lives in an indifferent environment where "every living thing in the water that fell onto the deck of a boat cried out for its mother, the sea." Through analysis and thoughtful observation, Biguenet makes Oyster a very accessible work. It is not the erudite offering of his critically lauded collection of short stories, The Torturer's Apprentice; the language here is strong but informal, and the plot is not mysteriously complicated. Horse is excited by the prospect of a young bride, but his primary motive is the survival of his family. Unfortunately for him, he has met his match in Therese, who with her mother, Mathilde Petitjean, demonstrate the rise of the feminine spirit.
By declining to tell the story only through its male relationships -- and thereby resisting a tendency among too many American novelists -- Biguenet is able to display the advent of change in this sheltered society. No longer can fathers merely exchange their daughters as currency. "It ain't like the old days, Darryl," says Therese to Horse. "My daddy can't give me away."
Still, the past is ever-present. Mathilde is reminded of this in church, where the priest recites, "For behold, I was conceived in iniquities, and in sin did my mother conceive me." Mathilde is unable to progress beyond this torment, but Therese chooses a different path, moving forward with a fierce pride that won't allow her to be a lamb.
There are other obstacles to Therese's success. Looming most large are the remaining members of the Bruneau clan. Darryl Jr. ("Little Horse") and his brother, Ron, are determined to seek vengeance upon the Petitjeans for their father's death. Like father, like sons: they underestimate Therese and mistakenly believe her brother, Alton, to be responsible for the murder. A third Bruneau brother, Rusty, lacks the brutality of his older brothers, but he possesses an objectivity that allows him to glimpse the possibility of peace. But as in many conflicts, more blood must be shed before this peace can be forged.
A purely intellectual reading of Oyster reveals a web of sociological uproar represented by finely woven allegories such as the oyster itself, which Biguenet calls "a kind of marriage of water and stone." On the emotional level, Biguenet has crafted a story that contains enough passion to stir even the most lethargic of hearts. Despite an ending that is a little too convenient, Oyster is a novel that simply satisfies its high expectations.
- In his debut novel, John Biguenet trawls through his characters' lives in an indifferent environment where 'every living thing in the water that fell onto the deck of a boat cried out for its mother, the sea.'