The Plover, by Brian Doyle

by Robert A. Parker


This 2014 work is quite a novel, quite an unusual novel. Indeed, a tour de force. It breaks so many rules, in fact, as it creates worlds of its own. It offers both a real world and an imaginary world, each created with poetry, sensitivity, and humor. But most significant are the many rules of fiction it breaks—with its endless, rhythmic sentences, its magic realism of talking birds, and its direct and indirect addressing of the reader.

This is the story of a man, Declan O’Donnell, who journeys around the vast Pacific in his small fishing boat, the Plover. He revels in his solitude, but slowly takes on passengers along the way, passengers who expand his and our awareness of the expanse and depths of both the Pacific and the human experience. But this book requires patience. It is not a book for everyone. For a long while, I wondered where it was going, much less where the boat and Declan, its captain, were going. Finally, I realized that there were no rules. That I was to experience here the journey within as much as the novel without. That this was not just about reality, this was also an inner voyage, a journey into the meaning of human nature and the implications of our natural environment.

This Pacific voyage is so real, however, that one wonders how Doyle has made it come alive with such detail. Yes, the credits listed in his acknowledgements suggest tremendous research, which is often the key to richly conceived novels such as this. But one also speculates that it is time he has spent at sea himself that has enabled Doyle to capture this experience so brilliantly.

And yet the strength of this novel is not in that reality, but in the magic, meaning the author’s imagination. In the miracle of an impaired, dumb child, for example, who can communicate with birds, one of whom suddenly enables her to speak. And in other birds that give comfort and anticipate danger. There is even literary magic in the long, complex, yet clear sentences that stretch the core of a thought or of a situation to its verbal limits.

Underlying the magic and the beauty, however, is a story, for Doyle understands that he needs a story in order to draw the reader through what are at times ephemeral pages. And so the hero Declan picks up various passengers, each with a story to tell and each contributing to the journey. There is an old friend Piko, and his daughter Pipa who has been crippled by an accident and cannot talk; Tauromauri, a woman so huge she is first taken to be a man; Tungaru, a minister for fisheries, etc., who dreams of a Utopian nation of Pacific islands; and Danilo, a refugee with a marvelous singing voice. And finally, for suspense, there is the mysterious Tanets, a ship in pursuit of the Plover. Why is its captain, Enrique, so intent on sinking the Plover and its passengers? It will become clear when he becomes the final passenger.

There is additional suspense in a typhoon, a kidnapping and rescue, a hijacking, and a sea battle, but it is balanced by Declan’s introspection as he seeks to escape society, and society keeps confronting him with new passengers, new adventures, and new implications. And hovering in Declan’s mind are the writings of Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher whose thinking enriches the context of Declan’s search for meaning across a vast and empty Pacific Ocean.

One senses that Doyle declines to be limited by the rules of fiction. Perhaps this follows his interest in the spiritual aspects of life. Thus, just as that level of perception breaks the bounds of reality, so does a similar perspective seek to break theough the limits of the literary world. I do wonder how much this limits his exposure inside the literary world, but one suspects his primary concern is exploring the limits of both literature and the human experience—as, indeed, Declan is exploring his own limits across a Pacific also limitless.

This novel offers the continuation of Declan’s life after he fades into the Pacific on the final pages of Mink River. One wonders if Doyle will continue Declan’s story, and extend these books into a trilogy. He does open the door to a third volume, when Declan discovers a potential love on the final pages here. Such a continuation may depend, however on Doyle’s interest in exploring further a Declan who has changed from a troubled hero in the first volume to a solitary, searching hero in the second. Do still new adventures await him, in which he will further pursue the fulfillment he seems denied? It would appear that love might well offer a new, and perhaps spiritual, horizon. (April, 2016)

Note: Because of a previous contact, I sent the author my review; and he wrote this in his response: “I am interested in writing novels that are experiences in and of themselves. I want the language to be a world; I want the reader to be lured in and mesmerized; I want them to hear and see and smell what the beings in the book do; I want you to be startled when you find a blank page at the end; I want you to come with me into imagination and possibility and the probability of the nominally impossible; I want you to question what you think you know; I want to soar and sail and dive and delve; I want to push the form as far as I can, and I have only one rule: be clear. As long as the reader doesn’t get clogged and slowed, everything is possible.”