Julia Glass has never set out to write a political novel. “But if I write about contemporary life,” she says, “my characters are going to intersect with politics. Something is going to force them to butt up against whatever forces are exerting themselves.”
For the characters in Glass’s seventh novel, Vigil Harbor, these forces are largely determined by geography. Climate change is a daily subject of conversation in their town, located on a peninsula on the Massachusetts coast.
A lover of Provincetown — she served as an instructor at the Fine Arts Work Center for over a decade and is a co-founder of Twenty Summers — and a year-round resident of Marblehead, Glass understands how climate change is always part of the discourse in coastal communities.
Set roughly 10 years after the pandemic, Vigil Harbor is Glass’s first novel to take place in the future. It imagines a world where ocean life is dwindling, birds are scarce, anti-immigration activists have spearheaded brutal deportation raids, and much of Cape Cod has been swallowed by rising tides. But Glass is far from a doomsayer — in fact, she calls herself an “anti-nihilist.”
“Terrible things happen to any good fiction writer’s characters,” she says, “but I write books in which hope prevails. Whatever else is going on, there will be people who haven’t given up on fixing the things that are broken.”
At first glance, the town of Vigil Harbor seems to have won the “geopolitical lottery”: thanks to its location on a granite cliff, it will withstand encroaching waters long after towns like Gloucester are flooded. Its economic privilege and racial homogeneity have made injustice and danger appear distant and avoidable. Within this bubble, people who brag they are “13th-generation residents” seem to be sheltered from the forces shaking the rest of the country.
Readers are introduced to Vigil Harbor through the eyes of Brecht, a recently returned college dropout. His perspective is telling: though he may not admit it, he is using Vigil Harbor as a kind of psychic shield, nestling into the beauty of its cliffs and tending its gardens while he avoids a reckoning with trauma.
The town is under the influence of “a virus of radical discontent,” Brecht notes, its marriages falling apart in rapid succession. In one gossip-worthy split, two members of the yacht club run away to a kind of doomsday prepper community, leaving their spouses, Margo and Mike, behind. Margo, a former English teacher at the local high school, doesn’t mince words; her bald, unapologetic anger at her husband is almost cathartic as she refuses to be a victim.
Mike seems fated for depression — his job as a biologist forces him to witness the gradual end of marine life. It’s easy to rejoice in the moments when Mike meets Margo at her funniest and most abrasive, each of them trying to navigate complex relationships with adult children.
“All of our children think we drink too much,” Mike tells Margo. “We do. The thing is, most of them don’t drink enough.”
Glass writes that Vigil Harbor is the kind of concerned community where people “donate rather than demonstrate.” While no one appears outwardly racist, it is also the type of town where Celestino, an immigrant from Guatemala and one of the few residents of color, feels he enjoys only conditional inclusion even after many years.
As the stakes escalate from divorce to kidnapping, many of the characters’ assumptions are systematically challenged. When a man from Celestino’s past arrives and sets in motion a plot that supplants the town’s more typical dramas, Vigil Harbor’s bubble is punctured, if just for a night.
Austin, an architect of Vigil Harbor’s elite, stormproof coastal homes, is haunted by memories of New York City, which he left for a new existence — as if, his wife later says, “life is a cake and you can cut it into pieces.” Austin’s past has caught up with him in the shape of Petra, who blames him for the presumed death of their mutual young love: a beguiling artist who may or may not have been a selkie. Glass never reveals whether she believes this creature was a shapeshifting seal-woman or seriously unhinged — both possibilities are entertained, and defended, by Petra and Mike, respectively.
This foray into the fantastic reads like a balancing act: what can serve as counterweight to the calamities of climate change, terrorism, and deportation raids other than something of equal, awesome scale?
While the novel has intense action — bombings, a high-speed boat chase — its conversations carry the greatest narrative weight. One rather villainous figure warns a young mother, “You have all these choices. Most people don’t. Be careful not to take your choices for granted.” And although the book often deals with privilege — being able to choose a direction for one’s life and have the freedom to follow the decision through — it treats those choices with immense respect.
Disaster haunts the dialogue, like its characters’ memories of recently extinct species, but it doesn’t dominate the prose. Characters have room to explore how to grapple with the world they face, knowing they cannot change the temperature of the ocean, for example, but that they may be able to learn how to play the piano for a new baby.
“What does it mean to write about characters who are powerless to make as much of a difference as they wish they could in their dreams?” Glass asks. That may be the central concern of Vigil Harbor. “People have always lived through brutal and tragic times,” she says. “However, people adapt, and they do miraculous things sometimes.”
The miracle of Vigil Harbor is that it allows its characters to face their own mistakes. In its world, even a depressed marine biologist, his subjects of study all but disappeared, can find humor and happiness in the next generation’s birth. In a future filled with worries come to pass, Julia Glass asks how we might imagine going forward.