In his previous novels, Leo Brent Robillard has tackled the Boer War, the Wild West, and Jazz Age Montreal, but for his latest, he’s set his sights on the present. The Road to Atlantis begins with a dramatic jolt. It doesn’t give anything away to reveal that a child drowns within the first 10 pages, setting in motion one family’s journey of loss and recuperation that spans decades. At fewer than 250 pages, this brief novel packs more emotional wallop than many books twice or three times its length, which is a testament to Robillard’s surgically precise prose.
Our principal players are David and Anne Henry, parents to Nat, a girl of about eight, and Matty, their toddler son. While vacationing in Cape May, New Jersey, Nat disappears on the beach. Though David tries to remain calm, he suffers an overwhelming sense of foreboding: “It felt as though he had swallowed a fishhook and now someone was dragging his insides toward the surface.” When a lifeguard blows a whistle and people begin leaving the water, the reader knows instantly what’s happened. David’s moment of realization is harrowing: “So this is how my life is meant to be,” he thinks.
The remainder of the novel documents the ways in which each surviving family member is changed in the wake of the catastrophe. For David, the concept of love has been spoiled: “Everything eventually came to an end. Even love. And if it didn’t end, it twisted and became sharp and ugly, and then you simply wanted it to end.” Anne experiences a similar mistrust of affection. “[She and David] barely spoke anymore. And when they did, [she] felt as though they did so through a clear plastic coating that muffled sound and sensation.” Even their sole sexual encounter after the tragedy is devoid of love: “The moment [David] was inside her, something in Anne died.”
The Henry family narrative tracks infidelity, unemployment, and unexpected pregnancy, eventually expanding to include Matty as a teenager and David’s estranged father. This makes The Road to Atlantis a welcome rarity: a multi-generational family saga that zips along at the pace of a thriller.