There's something so pleasurable about getting fully immersed in a big epic novel and Kate Mayfield's new “The Parentations” had me wrapped up in its story for days. It skilfully delves into fascinating pockets of history while building a story about the tense relationship between a group of characters who have gained a kind of immortality. While there is a fantasy element to the story of a life-sustaining liquid drawn from the tectonic cracks of Iceland's lunar-like landscape, the novel is also infused with dark gothic overtones involving a pair of reclusive wealthy sisters whose lives have been beset by tragedy, a manipulative woman who learns the art of hypnotism & mesmerism and a red-haired artistic boy subjected to torturous experiments. But other sections of the book have a Dickensian feel with a superstitious girl named Willa taken from a gloomy orphanage and a depiction of the notoriously brutal Millbank prison in London. As the story progresses over the centuries it also shows London's transformations through seasons, wars, a fluctuating economy and redevelopments. All this is wrapped in an overarching tale about a boy's heartrending separation from his mother to keep him safe and protect an ancient secret for evading death.
Mayfield has a skilful way of engaging with the politics of different ages through the personal stories of her characters. Beginning in Iceland, a ground-breaking secret about a wondrous elixir becomes the point a conflict between a group of Icelandic farmers and a wealthy Danish family intent on stealing this secret for themselves. Iceland was still under Danish rule at this time and the story of this struggle in some ways mirrors the lengths of time it takes for a nation to achieve full independence from a foreign monarchy's rule. Then there are the sisters Verity and Constance whose privileged Catholic family were forced to hide their beliefs in times after the English Reformation. It's interesting how the faith and degree of piety of each sister transforms over the ages of their extended lives. There's also the story of Jonesy, a Chinese boy taken on as an apprentice after he was won through gambling. Jonesy's homosexuality leads him to engage in different furtive encounters while England still criminalized same sex acts. His story powerfully portrays the desolate state of mind a gay man must have felt when being continuously persecuted for his impulse to love.
I also felt strongly compelled by the character of Clovis who grew up in the most humble of circumstances in rural Iceland. Her method for escaping such a dire, humble life is to take advantage of every situation she can and shore up power to ferociously protect herself. While she's rightly portrayed as a villain it's also interesting how her story shows the way an individual's survivalist instinct can ultimately lead to a particularly somber kind of isolation. It's fascinating how this novel can explore a different kind of character development as its protagonists lives are stretched out over centuries rather than decades. In some ways the characters change and develop in radical ways, but also retain essential elements of their personalities and belief systems. At times this challenging method of narrative doesn't feel like it can fully explore all the challenges such a situation would produce. Some dramatic situations feel a bit rushed and too reliant upon coincidence. But, on the whole, Mayfield maintains an admirable control of the characters' evolution in sync with the long stretch of time that the novel covers and the story is consistently engrossing. “The Parentations” builds a wondrous panoramic view of history and disparate groups of people united like a family over centuries.