When an author focuses on a small, sheltered world, as a reader you feel equal parts insider and outsider. You know everything that happens but not why. You see the place in full, yet its history unfolds slowly. Much like the great Joyce Carol Oates, Thisbe Nissen creates an exclusive world peopled with both the young and the old, and all of it is shattered in her third work of fiction, Osprey Island. On the island, no one lives safely from pain or the past.
No longer a thriving vacation destination in 1988, the Lodge—a couple of hours from New York—offers meaning and money to most of Osprey Island’s inhabitants, directly or indirectly. From Independence Day through Labor Day, it brings handfuls of young Irish girls to stock the housekeeping team and college boys for the waitstaff. Inevitably, they spend the hot months working, drinking, and, maybe, crushing the hours away on a love interest.
But the Lodge is also the snow globe for the story of Roddy Jacobs, who left Osprey the minute he graduated Island High, only to return after the death of his father, and Suzy Chizek, daughter of the Lodge’s owners, who comes back from New York every summer with her 6-year-old daughter. Almost 20 years after going to high school together, Roddy and Suzy start an affair that lasts through the community’s two-week-long self-destruction, which begins when Lorna Squire, the Lodge’s alcoholic head of housekeeping, dies in a fire. Lorna’s 8-year-old son, in turn, latches onto Roddy, and her widower becomes a danger to everyone around him.
Osprey Island is definitely not a love story, and its ending comes rather abruptly; strange how mellow the book is despite the key events: infidelity, death, violence, and the rape of a young woman. Nissen’s writing is calm and poetic, and her voice tells the story on its own: “Neither of them thought of anything to say. They sipped their beers. They smoked their cigarettes. You had to be grateful for props at times like this.” That such a young author tackles so big a story with grace is another reason to feel that way.