The Right-Hand Shore

  • Christopher Tilghman
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 368 pp.

The author revisits Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and its slave-holding past, in a prequel to his debut novel Mason’s Retreat.

Reviewed by Natalie Wexler

Fifteen years after the glowing reception of his debut novel Mason’s Retreat, Christopher Tilghman has written what might be termed a prequel. The Right-Hand Shore begins in 1920, more than 10 years before the start of Mason’s Retreat, with Edward Mason, its protagonist, paying his first visit to the Eastern Shore estate he will soon inherit.

You don’t need to have read the first book to appreciate and understand the new one. (I haven’t.) But knowing that Edward Mason is the main character in another book may help explain his presence here, for he is more a passive observer than an active participant, a magician’s prop who pops up and vanishes seemingly at will. The opening chapter finds Edward and his distant older cousin, Miss Mary Bayly, sitting on the porch of the Mansion House, engaged in awkward conversation. Mary, the owner of Mason’s Retreat, knows that she’s dying, and she needs to find an heir. Edward has come down from Boston to be assessed as to whether he’ll fit the bill. After their talk, Mary passes him on to Mr. French, the manager, for a tour of the farm. At one point Mr. French points to a spot and says, “This is where they found the boy’s body,” but refuses to elaborate.

For the next 130 pages, Edward Mason disappears. We are plunged back into the 1850s, when a man who we eventually realize is Mary’s grandfather callously sells a few dozen slaves down south at a bargain price, foreseeing that slavery will soon be coming to an end, at least in Maryland. Then an omniscient narrative voice continues to describe for us, in rich, evocative detail, the courtship of Miss Mary’s parents; her birth and that of her brother, Thomas; Thomas’s intense friendship with a gifted local black boy, Randall; and Thomas’s dangerous infatuation with Randall’s beautiful sister, Beal.

Suddenly, Edward Mason reappears, and we’re given to understand that he’s spent the last several hours listening to Mr. French and his wife relate a version of what we’ve just read. I say “a version” because the preceding chapters have included events and thoughts the Frenches couldn’t possibly know, with a level of detail that only a gifted novelist could conjure up. Sometimes, as with a catalogue of seashells collected by Thomas and Randall, those details can feel endless. But at other times Tilghman’s technique is masterful, as when young Mary, lying in her bed in a convent school in Paris, overhears two teachers going through their morning ritual: “a mumbled prayer, a splashing from the washstand, and a slight, horsey snort as Madame Bernault cleared the water from her nostrils, a stretching and a rustling as she, and now Soeur Lisette, disrobed and withdrew from their own dressing boxes their undergarments, their habits, the clink of the chain of Madame Bernault’s cross as she pulled it over her head, the stiff pinning of fluted caps, the swish of their veils.”

Mason disappears again as the story progresses into the early 20th century, reappearing at the end — again with the reminder that this is all a tale that’s been told to him through the course of a long afternoon. When an accomplished author employs a device such as this, it behooves the reader to ask why. Mason’s presence is unnecessary to the plot, and we’re obviously not meant to believe that those who supposedly relate the story to Mason could possibly narrate what we’ve read in all its complexity.

One explanation, as I’ve suggested, is that Mason serves to link this book with its predecessor/sequel. Or the framing device might be an homage to 19th-century novels such as Wuthering Heights and The Turn of the Screw, both tales supposedly told by a narrator character to a more or less passive listener. But perhaps Tilghman is making a metafictional point, impressing upon us that what we’re reading is an invention and by extension raising questions about the nature of truth. Mason can be seen as a stand-in for us — the reader — and when we’re reminded that he’s being told a tale, we’re also reminded that we are. Tilghman plays with this concept, at one point having Mason think that “it was as if these people being spoken of were in a novel,” and imagining that he himself has become a character whose “life is a story being told by someone else.” When Mason actually meets one of the characters he’s been hearing about — Abel, the father of the gifted Randall and the beautiful Beal — and realizes, with a start, that these stories are real, his surprise mirrors our own at being reintroduced to Mason after having been immersed in another fictional world.

Although absorbing, The Right-Hand Shore is not without flaws. While most of its many characters are vivid and believable, it’s not always easy to keep them straight, and one, a Cassandra-like black woman named Zoe who casts imprecations at all and sundry, is unnecessarily over the top, warning Beal that if she sleeps with a white man her “female parts will burn” and she’ll bear “a Monkey child [who] will come out of your chest with your heart in its claws.” Nor is plot a strong point. The story takes a number of detours and sometimes feels repetitive. And when the mystery behind “the boy’s body” is at last revealed, it’s not entirely satisfying.

But Tilghman is a master at transporting us to another time and place. While he marshals a staggering number of historical details, they are so subtly woven into the sensory experience of his characters’ lives that they never feel false or pedantic. (Those familiar with the Eastern Shore and Baltimore will feel a thrill of recognition when Tilghman alludes to things such as terrapin soup and Mt. Vernon Place.) Tilghman takes a subject that is both well worn and overwhelming — the legacy of slavery — and distills it into a complex horror that damages and curses people who we believe, at least for the duration of the book, are real. Like Mason, by the end of the tale, we find ourselves wiser for having heard it.

Natalie Wexler is the author of two novels, A More Obedient Wife and The Mother Daughter Show, and is currently working on a novel set in Baltimore in 1807.

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