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Tourmaline    by Joanna Scott order for
by Joanna Scott
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Back Bay, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Tourmaline is a gem of a tale, in an intriguing island setting. Elba, off the northwest coast of Italy, is famous as Napoleon's first place of exile, from which he launched a renewed bid for power in Europe. But it was another war that sent the Murdochs to this island paradise.

With idyllic memories of Elba from his time there as an American soldier in the summer of 1944, Murray Murdoch borrows from his mother and uncles, and moves his family (his wife Claire and four small sons) to the island in 1956. Why? It's unclear to his relatives, the reader, and even to Murray himself, but has something to do with the possibility buried in the island's semi-precious tourmalines, and a lot to do with his need to escape the failures of his life.

The tale is told by the youngest son, Ollie, after he has returned to Elba as an adult. When the voice occasionally switches to the mother Claire and later to Murray, it seems that Olllie is imagining what his parents would say about his reconstruction of events. Claire's different perspectives on what happened and her sly corrections of Ollie's 'melodrama' are real and entertaining. Other key actors include the ageing Francis Cape, 'come to Elba to write a biographical account of Napoleon's years of exile and dramatic escape', and his young friend Adriana Nardi, whose family own a Napoleonic archive, which includes the Emperor's coffee cup.

While Murray purchases land at an inflated price, Claire reads and dreams, and their four 'bambinos' run wild. Then Adriana disappears, and the reader is left to wonder along with Claire and the islanders, what exactly was Murray's involvement with her. Claire becomes close to Adriana's 'magnifica' mother, while Francis stirs the pot. As his son Ollie later remarks, Murray keeps searching for tourmaline since 'Tourmaline is what a man looks for when he doesn't know what he's looking for.'

As Ollie struggles to understand what happened on the island during his childhood, he is 'hampered by the boundless foolishness of my imagination'; the same imagination which has given us a brilliant, multi-faceted tale of the'mysterious nature of love and all its unpredictable outcomes.'

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