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

Thursday, September 22, 2011

2011/50: The Seas -- Samantha Hunt

...one night just before my father disappeared, I heard him tell my mother, "I remembere how the moon shines into the ocean and the pattern it makes on the sea floor." [...]
He meant that we were from the ocean. "You're a mermaid," he told me at the breakfast table. "Don't forget it." A corner of toast scraped the roof of my mouth when he said it. The cut it made helped me to remember. So I don't think he's dead. I think he is in the sea swimming and that is kinder than imagining his boots filling up with water and then his lungs. (location 198, Kindle)

The Seas is the first-person narrative of an unnamed nineteen-year-old woman growing up in a bleak northern town (the opening sentence is "The highway only goes south from here"). She lives with her mother and grandfather, both inveterate hoarders, but her emotional focus is balanced between two men: her father, who disappeared when she was eight, and Gulf veteran Jude, discharged with PTSD and apparently oblivious to her love for him.

The narrator is still uncertain as to whether she's a mermaid. If she is, she's in the right town: also nameless, this is a settlement built on fishing, sustained and destroyed by the ocean that batters houses and piers. The local motel, "The Seas", has rooms named after famous storms. The narrator first encounters Jude on the beach: he's swimming in the icy waves. It turns out that he has something of a history with water himself. But (she wonders) does he know the truth about mermaids? Does he know what she'd have to give up, what he'd have to risk, for them to be together?

This is a short novel, and not a simple one: like water, it's hard to hang onto anything, it slips through the fingers and the mind, leaving only traces -- like the wet footprints that the narrator finds in odd places, like the pool of water on Jude's floor.

Hunt's prose is lyrical, tough and bleak: the narrator's sense of humour is black ("All mermaids do is swim around and kill sailors. Not a great job.") and her perceptions and perspectives unique. It's increasingly clear that she's moving through a world that differs from that experienced by the other characters, yet Hunt doesn't take lazy shortcuts: the character herself is what convinces, or doesn't.

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