Stevens Brown, who returns home at the age of twenty, five years after a battle with his father. His letters to a friend in Florida sketch isolated Griffin Creek, settled in 1782 by Royalist exiles from the American Revolution. Their descendants have intermarried for generations. He is the most intense of the violent family men, scarred by his father’s brutality and his mother’s rejection. He is obsessed with two cousins who have matured into women during his absence. On August 31, 1936, driven by a storm of emotion, he strangles his cousins and sinks their bodies in the sea. In 1982, he surfaces in Montreal, having escaped from a veterans’ hospital where he had lived, insane, since fighting in World War II. His last letter and suicide note close the novel.
Olivia Atkins, the housemaid and prisoner of her father and older brothers. She hopes for Stevens’ love but fears his latent violence. At the age of seventeen, she is perfect in physical beauty and dutiful domesticity. After death, she is transmuted into the lyric narrative voice “Olivia of the High Seas,” in communion with the spirits of her female ancestors. She reflects on the memories of her cousin Stevens and her physical life and family, but she is drawn toward dissolution in the ocean, which is “Mère” (mother) as well as “Mer” (sea).
Nora Atkins, the double cousin of Olivia, fifteen years old in the summer of 1936. She is caught in passion for Stevens. Red-haired like her uncle, Nicholas Jones, and a child of the sun, she revels in her developing body. Her narrative voice celebrates summer and youth. Olivia is outwardly cool, identified with the sea; Nora is earthy and provocative. Her taunts and reproaches to Stevens catalyze his rage. She is the first of the cousins to die. Her body washes ashore, to...
(The entire section is 777 words.)