In the opening pages of Vanessa Veselka’s sophomore novel “The Great Offshore Grounds,” four members of an estranged family gather on an island in the Puget Sound for the wedding of their father figure, Cyril. There’s Kirsten, his ex-partner; their daughters, Cheyenne and Livy, who were born on the same day, but only one of them to Kirsten; and Essex, who was 11 and homeless when Cheyenne “found” him on the street and “dragged home.” As this family gathers, so does a storm, casting an omen of trouble to come.
“The Great Offshore Grounds” is a character-driven novel from Veselka, based in Portland, Oregon. The focus shifts as the book unfolds, from the sisters’ relationship, to Essex’s enlisting as a Marine, to Kirsten’s own battle with illness. It also follows the individual journeys of Cheyenne, who ends up in a yurt in a North Carolina swamp, and Livy, whose series of misadventures (and becoming a victim of a terrible crime) on fishing boats in Alaska lead her to fall in love with a woman driven by her anti-capitalist activism.
With so much going on, the narrative can feel overwhelming. The muddled meaning of family, and of extreme individualism within a family, are compelling themes that Veselka deftly explores. The characters have chaotic interiorities, which are both jarring and strangely poignant. They are also always struggling financially, despite Cyril’s wealth, which he does not share. The portrayal of the choices one must make when living paycheck to paycheck in late capitalist America is realistic and devastating, especially when it comes to medical decisions.
This is a thorny book. Veselka is a talented writer, with sensual imagery and an unflinching ability to stick with troubled and troublesome characters. However, the book falters in some important ways, especially around race.
There are many instances of American racial dynamics that are raised through dialogue and internal observation. In Boston, where Cheyenne lived with her then-husband, for example, she experiences a “supernova of subterranean longings” that manifests as the desire to sleep with a series of her husband’s Black and POC students.
“At first it had sated a deep hunger for something she was convinced was unnameable, but in the end, it did have a name,” Veselka writes. “The students she met called it whiteness. According to them, it was everywhere on her and in her. A new unspeakable shame to lay over the other shames she knew.” This “unspeakable shame” centers white feelings while turning away from the reasons behind Cheyenne’s sexually predatory behavior, which are never addressed.
This casual racism extends to the other characters too. One of Livy’s crewmates on a fishing job, for example, is Indigenous to Alaska, and he shows her his tattoo of Anubis. Her response: “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know how many hippies in the Lower Forty-Eight would kill to be native? Cover yourself with killer whales and eagles. Lord it over them. They deserve it.” This kind of dialogue does its job when it comes to portraying characters who aren’t supposed to be endearing, but it also feels tired and generally unnecessary. The book often seems to undermine its anti-capitalist narrative by engaging in the casual racism and stereotyping rooted in that capitalism.
Woven among multipronged storylines of the book are Sir Walter Raleigh, a 16th-century English “explorer” who Livy often imagines on her ships, and World War I Lt. Gen. John A. Lejeune, who serves as a similar, ghostlike figure for Essex. Though the added layer of these historical ties almost overloads an already ambitious book, there is a line delivered from Raleigh’s point of view that succinctly embodies the ethos of nearly every character: “I am not liable. I am not liable.” None of the characters here want to take responsibility for their actions, or even their own emotions. Their active avoidance drives everything they do, and they leave all kinds of wreckage in their collective and individual wakes.
“The Great Offshore Grounds” is a twisty, dense novel. Despite the many side characters, the four main characters are well developed and the messy relationships they have with one another ring true.
While the novel perhaps meanders too often, and though some characters fall short, this novel shines in its exploration of motherhood. The deeply moving and nuanced mother narrative is a rewarding journey in itself. Also satisfying is the parallel emotional evolution of the sisters, however flawed it remains.
On balance, this is a compelling, sometimes frustrating and disturbing novel that realistically portrays poverty and messy family dynamics. Its settings are vivid and will be recognized by many Seattle-area readers. Its structure is sprawling, its emotional beats hard-won. But like the characters at its center, it leaves some important things unexamined.
“The Great Offshore Grounds” by Vanessa Veselka, Knopf, 448 pp., $27.95