The “sweeping family saga” can be an unwieldy yet rewarding fictional trope. When the author succeeds, any initial confusion is worth it for the historical intimacies gleaned through generations of upheaval, discovery, growth and resolution.
Regina Porter’s debut novel, “The Travelers,” is on the smaller side for these types of books, tracking roughly a dozen members of an extended clan from Georgia to New Hampshire, with sojourns in Vietnam and Europe, between the 1950s and 2010. But while there are compelling and moving episodes, the narrative is so piecemeal and rushed that any cohesive story is extraordinarily elusive, particularly if you don’t read the book in one sitting. The result is a novel that manages to be both skeletal and repetitious.
The story opens with a breakneck, six-page life summary of “the man James,” who serves as a kind of font for the other characters, though not every one relates to or interacts with him directly. The second chapter, anchored by evocative dialogue and an intensely resonant scene, is the book’s strongest. It also introduces Porter’s two most intriguing characters, Agnes Christie and Eloise Delaney, though sadly even their stories are never fully explored.
The ensuing chapters skip around in time, bouncing from person to person. There is no apparent stylistic or narrative benefit to this approach; it simply feels like the chapters were dropped on the ground and picked up at random. (To be fair, the final four chapters do bring the story into 2010 and tie up some loose ends.)
Certainly nothing says a novel need be organized linearly, or even coherently, but when the reader must still refer back to that cast of characters at the end of the book, the author has missed the mark.