An Overwrought Tale of Brothers and the Sea


“The Voyage,” a new novel by Philip Caputo, is an architecturally complex, thematically ambitious book about a sea journey from Maine to Cuba taken by three brothers at the turn of the century and re-imagined decades later by the granddaughter of one of them. Caputo, who is probably best known for “A Rumor of War,” his 1977 memoir about Vietnam, opens up his narrative voice here to encompass a wide range of subjects: family dynamics and legacies; the behavior of the sea and men who are drawn to it; the power of secrets; the obscuring capacity of time.

Nathaniel, Eliot and Drew Braithwaite are the three brothers who are sent off on an unusual sailing trip one summer by their father, Cyrus, a hardhearted, difficult man whose temperament is as “unpredictable as the sea he loved.” He gathers the boys, who are 16 (Nat), 15 (Eliot) and 13 (Drew), gives them $10 apiece, and tells them that no matter what happens, there will be no more money at their disposal; that they are not to return home until September, when school starts; and that they may go anywhere they please on their two-masted schooner, the Double Eagle, except to Boston, where their mother is in the hospital being treated for a mysterious female ailment. “His mien, his tone of voice, were not those of a father bestowing a reward but of a judge pronouncing sentence,” observes the narrator in the first of many vaguely biblical, highly portentous cues.

The narrator is Sybil Braithwaite, Cyrus’ great-granddaughter, whose mother tells her--with more portent still--that “when it comes to your late father’s family history, some things do not bear looking into too closely.” But of course look Sybil does: into the vessel’s log, into family photos and letters and stories, and ultimately into her own imagination, all in an attempt to understand how her grandfather and his brothers ended up shipwrecked in Cuba without boat or funds and having undergone some painful human losses along the way.


The novel proceeds, mostly, by laying out Sybil’s version of the adventures on the Double Eagle, which the brothers sail south from Maine, stopping first to visit a friend of their mother’s, who explains her condition to them (she is in the hospital for a hysterectomy). Later they are joined by a friend, Will Terhune, who encourages them to go south to Florida. Eventually the foursome decide to look for the remains of, and possible unretrieved treasure on, the wrecked Annisquam, whose crew their father and their half-brother, charismatic, ne’er-do-well Lockwood Braithwaite, famously rescued years earlier.

In Beaufort, S.C., the travelers meet their Great-Aunt Judith, who is estranged from their mother, talks to them about the Civil War and hints at dark family secrets. En route to Cuba, their boat is dramatically shipwrecked; on Cuba, Will falls in love with a local girl and becomes entangled in her perverse family. Ultimately the boys make their way home without their father’s help, “stripped of that illusion of invincibility which is the chief glory and liability of youth, which is youth itself.”

And so it goes: one leaden, portentous, clunky authorial insertion after another. Marred further by arch, faux period dialogue (“It would be a bully thing, middle brother, if you took some things seriously, once in a while”), character description that relies on simplistic generalities (Nat, for example, “possessed in full the Anglo-Saxon male’s love of activity and disdain for introspection”) and clumsy melodramatic narration (“The three brothers--children of the sea in quest of a father’s love, never knowing that love was the last thing they could expect from him”), “The Voyage” wears out its welcome long before the reader discovers why it is that the boys could not expect love from their stern father; why, indeed, they have been sent on these curious travels in the first place. The Gothic revelations that conclude “The Voyage,” dramatic though they are, feel unprecedented, inauthentic and manufactured, as does so much in this swollen and disappointing book.