The Watery Part of the World

Written by Michael Parker
Review by Bethany Latham

Although she is one of the best-educated and most brilliant women of her time, the history books are silent on the ultimate fate of Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of infamous Vice President Aaron Burr. On December 31, 1812, she set sail from South Carolina for a reunion with her beloved father in New York and was never heard from again. Parker picks up where history left off with his version of Theo’s story.

This is not just Theo’s story, however. The timeline switches between the early 19th century and the late 20th with one element tethering both: Yaupon Island. A hundred and fifty years after fate tosses Theo upon the shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, her descendants, polar opposite sisters Maggie and Whaley, are the last vestiges of human civilization on the once-populous island. They have a strangely symbiotic (perhaps parasitic) relationship with the island’s only other occupant, Woodrow Thornton, descendant of Theo’s freed slave.

Parker has an undeniable gift for characterization, offering convincing personalities and inner lives through spot-on dialogue and expressive prose. Maggie, Whaley, and Woodrow provide unique perspectives on the same events, each colored by a different worldview, melded only by the prism of the island, a place none of them can ever see their way to leaving. Though theirs is the majority of the story, I found myself much more drawn to Theo’s tale than that of her descendants. Maggie, Whaley, and Woodrow’s relationships are absorbing, but they’re extremely unpleasant to behold – failures, cruelty, and terrible loneliness make up their lives, lives seldom relieved by sympathy from those sharing their island isolation. That island is almost like a character in itself; the immersive atmosphere Parker crafts is perfect, and the island is as unwelcoming as its last inhabitants. Highly recommended; just don’t expect to feel like clicking your heels together after reading.