Book review: The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

The Promise
The Promise
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In September 1900, a devastating hurricane hit the island city of Galveston in Texas. The storm surge killed over 6,000 people and is still on record as the deadliest natural disaster in American history.

Against this dramatic backdrop, acclaimed author Ann Weisgarber has woven a beautiful and breathtaking story of love and loss, new beginnings and old secrets, resentment and reconciliation.

The Promise is Weisgarber’s first book since The Personal History of Rachel Dupree was nominated for the Orange Prize and it’s as haunting as it is exciting. Richly descriptive and exceptionally powerful, the novel is a triumph of intelligent storytelling and understated emotion, and confirms the author as one of the most compelling contemporary literary voices around.

At the exquisitely crafted heart of the story is a young woman fleeing social disgrace in sophisticated Dayton, Ohio to marry a man she hasn’t seen for 12 years in the vaporising, backwoods heat of Texas.

Professional pianist Catherine Wainwright has become the subject of ‘breathless whispers’ in fashionable Dayton after an affair with a married man. She’s 29 and her angry mother tells her bluntly that she should have married years ago.

Ostracised by society and facing destitution, she has no choice but to find a husband as quickly as possible and leave town.

She strikes up a correspondence with a childhood admirer Oscar Williams who is now a dairy farmer in faraway Galveston and has been recently widowed leaving him with a five-year-old son to raise.

In desperation, she agrees to marry him and makes the 1,000 mile journey to Texas to discover a man who is now virtually a stranger. It will be a steep learning curve for the city woman more used to the polite talk and teacups of Dayton’s sophisticated parlours.

The island is remote, the intense heat rises ‘like vapours of steam,’ mosquitoes swarm and whine, Oscar’s beachside home is rustic, rattlesnakes sleep in the outhouse and Oscar’s little boy Andre is still grieving for his mother and resents Catherine’s presence.

But it is Oscar who most unnerves her. In her memory of him, she exaggerated his stammering shyness and thought she could keep him at arm’s length. The new Oscar is not the unsure boy who once sat in the back row at her music recitals.

And then there is Nan Ogden, Oscar’s housekeeper, who was born and raised on the island. Catherine’s sudden arrival comes as a great shock to Nan. Not only had she promised Oscar’s first wife that she would take care of Andre, but she has feelings for Oscar that she struggles to hide.

Nan believes her place in the household is threatened by Catherine’s presence, and so she tightens her hold on Andre. Meanwhile, the forces of nature are spinning toward Galveston...

Weisgarber’s masterful evocation of time and place and her portrayal of the simmering tensions created both by the gathering storm and the subtle interplay of the central relationships are the defining elements of this absorbing novel.

Through the dual narratives of Catherine and Nan, we see how small actions and words take on huge significance as the grand scheme unfolds; and the happiness of all threatens to be swept away by events both in the past and those that are amassing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Promise is a challenging, gripping and intensely moving story and highly accessible for a novel of such high literary status. Meticulous research and attention to detail have become the hallmarks of Weisgarber’s work.

Where to now for this talented writer?

(Mantle, hardback, £16.99)