No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, May 13, 2006

#46: The Seal Wife -- Kathryn Harrison

Anchorage, Alaska, 1916: frontier life. Bigelow is a young meteorologist whose primary duty is to relay weather forecasts to the men building the railroad, and to report back on Alaskan weather fronts that might affect more clement areas.

That's not what The Seal Wife is about. Instead, it deals with Bigelow's involvements with women. There are four: an Aleut woman who never speaks and is never named; Miriam, the daughter of the general store manager, who sings accompaniment at film showings but is otherwise made mute by a frightful stammer; Violet, the prostitute with the least embarrassing name at the local brothel; and Mary, a gap-toothed girl who picks his pocket at a dance.

When Bigelow isn't torn apart by his conflicting feelings (he doesn't use the word 'love' very much) for these four, he's building a meteorological kite that will go higher, further, than any other instrument. It should have been a clue, to me, that some of the most evocative passages in the novel are about the kite:

But why is he surprised? He has pages of calculations relating lift to the sine of the angle of incidence, pages more on the ratio of inertia to viscous forces. He's plotted everything out on paper ... It isn't magic, after all, it's science.
So how to explain the effect on him of the one white face, so bright, like sunlight on the surface of the sea, throwing spangles into the air? How to explain the catch in his chest, the sudden spill of tears?

It's a novel inverted: at the beginning, he is left, and at the end there's a return. And I think the title's a lie, although there is certainly a seal, and a bite -- in fact, there's a lot of biting -- and unlooked-for sympathy: surely a shred of doubt in Bigelow's mind, a faint unvoiced belief that the woman, that the seal ...

It isn't magic, after all, it's science.

A quiet, powerful novel: a window into a male-dominated society, a harsh life on the edge. A novel that will stay with me.

he's falling through a woman's vastness: storms and oceans, a desert, a mountain, a field in bloom, the wind moving in loops and arcs and great gusting sighs, the breath of God, in out in out, God exhaling clouds of geese, and Bigelow in his tower, watching.

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