T.C. Boyle's latest novel begins with a bang: A pregnant woman fights for survival after her boat sinks and she lands on the uninhabited island of Anacapa. It's a visceral, gripping couple of chapters, putting the unrelenting power of nature into keen focus—and providing a stark contrast to the relatively petty struggles that make up the rest of the sharply written When the Killing's Done. Many years later the pregnant woman's granddaughter, Alma Takesue, works for the National Park Service, making efforts to preserve the indigenous wildlife on Anacapa and its neighboring Northern Channel Islands, near the coast of Santa Barbara, California.
Takesue and the parks service have determined that in order to preserve these islands' delicate ecosystems, it's necessary to eradicate the invasive species, such as rats and wild pigs, that have been introduced by humans over the years. This raises the ire of Dave LaJoy, a supposed animal rights activist who says that all creatures—rats and pigs, too—deserve a right to life.
In theory, LaJoy has a point, but he's a myopic and hypocritical extremist who opts to terrorize Takesue rather than attempt a public debate. Indeed, there are few characters in contemporary literature as detestable as the dreadlocked LaJoy, a racist rageaholic who claims to be an advocate for animal rights but is driven apoplectic by the raccoons that dig up his lawn. Takesue, for her part, has similarly indelible if substantially more pragmatic convictions, but Boyle draws her as a somewhat fragile and flighty woman—she's not a conventional heroine, which makes the conflict between the two all the more interesting.
Despite seeming evidence to the contrary, Boyle has not written an environmental screed, nor does he get bogged down in the politics of his plot; When the Killing's Done is, more than anything, a rousing adventure story. The rich historical background Boyle incorporates—effortlessly combining fact with fiction—gives the book a James Michener-like scope within its relative brevity. The narrative hurtles along at a happy full tilt, with Boyle doubling back at appropriate places to fill in the gaps. Although the book's climax is splintered into somewhat disconnected fragments, When the Killing's Done remains a sweeping and satisfying read, both a relevant ecological commentary and a page-turner in its own right.