Sointula, by Bill Gaston

Raincoast Books, 452 pp., $34.95, hardcover.

"Oh, these failed private utopias that are families." Would-be author Peter Gore's thought links the titular Finnish utopia briefly active on Malcolm Island (1901 ­1905) with Bill Gaston's very contemporary characters, each as broken and complex as the coastline of Vancouver Island Gore seeks to chronicle. An early-50s Englishman leaving decades teaching American high school and a slowly dissolving marriage, Gore hangs his naive plan for rebirth on translating years of distant research into a first book, promptly complicated by a gall bladder attack, then utterly changed by meeting Sointula's central character, Evelyn Poole.

Evelyn leaves a stultifying life as the mid-40s wife of the mayor of Oakville to return to B.C. after 20 years, summoned to the deathbed of her first love Claude, a wild outdoorsman pushing 60 and father to her estranged son, Tom. Diagnosed sociopathic when young, now with brain damage from a botched drug deal, Tom works in isolation as a whale researcher near Sointula, which translates ironically from Finnish as "harmony among people and with nature that houses them".

Claude's death spurs Evelyn to stay, quit her antidepressants, and search for Tom. In grief and withdrawal, she lives off the land, stealing food and a kayak to island-hop up from Victoria to find her son, and some inner peace and healing. Joined en route by the equally lost Peter, the pair weather inner and outer squalls along their journey toward an uncertain and foreboding mother-son reunion.

Gaston is a hugely skilled storyteller, but describing the technical tools he uses here--Gore as historical commentator, thematic balance of past/present, wild/tamed, et cetera--would feel like explaining a magic trick, and equally disloyal to his art.

His greatest strengths are his compassionate portrayal of inner psychologies that never feel forced or fictional, and his seamless balance of plot line with occasional poetic line, as when Evelyn, off her drugs, feels "fragile as balanced water" or, earlier, "her brain felt like itchy spaghetti being twirled by a fork."

Always present is the idea, as Gore says, of the island as edge, as "the spot on the globe where people fled as far as possible and could go no further".