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Osprey Island
Knopf, 2004

Reviewed by Nicole Peradotto

Small towns have long been considered hotbeds of gossip; only their residents can appreciate the destruction of an uncorked secret. It’s a tantalizing premise, one that Thisbe Nissen explores in her keenly paced second novel, Osprey Island.

The events of Osprey Island take place during one month in 1988, as the staff of an East Coast summer retreat readies for tourists. The Osprey Lodge has never seen this much drama: Just before it opens, a fire in the laundry shack claims the life of head housekeeper Lorna Squire. Squire drank heavily, so no one’s surprised to discover that she had passed out with a cigarette burning. Yet when her diary surfaces intact among the rubble, we learn that many of the island’s year-rounders—Lorna’s husband included—never really understood her.

The journal, seen only by the sheriff, explains the strange behaviors of some of the islanders and reveals why the labels they so hastily affix to each other—“lush,” “eccentric,” “menace”—divert them from the complicated truth. With each portrayal, Nissen turns the quaint stereotype of small-town living inside out. Like the island itself, which refashions itself three months a year, its inhabitants’ identities shift depending on who’s looking at them—and how much they’re willing to reveal.

When Roddy Jacobs, one of the central characters, returns home after a mysterious 20-year absence, his mother views her prodigal son with pride. After all, he obeyed his conscience (or was it hers?) by refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. But Suzy Chizek, who has become intimate with Roddy, believes the opposite: He served overseas and can’t bear to discuss the trauma he endured. Both women are wrong, but Roddy lets them harbor their misconceptions. The real story may be too disappointing for them to hear, and too painful for him to tell.

Taking employment as the lodge’s maintenance man, Roddy finds unlikely companionship in the only person unconcerned with his past—Lorna’s 8-year-old son, Squee. Roddy takes Squee under his wing, and when the boy’s father emerges from mourning to reclaim him, the islanders make it their mission to protect Squee from his father’s explosive temper. Nissen is at her finest in crafting the ensuing standoff, which practically pops with pressure under her muscular prose.

Throughout Osprey Island, she steeps us in a locale that maintains a façade of tranquility only for its guests. No one understands the importance of this fragile front better than the lodge’s proprietor. “His life, his livelihood—ironic as it may have been —was about keeping people happy,” Thissen writes. “And keeping people happy…was about keeping them from seeing what they didn’t want to see.”

Nissen’s insider’s perspective comes from childhood summers spent on New York’s Shelter Island. From that starting point she carves out a convincing slice of island life, in which giddy hopes of summer romance are swiftly derailed, old rivalries percolate and, ultimately, the fate of an 8-year-old ragamuffin hangs in the balance.

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