The Seas by Samantha Hunt
I am pretty much done with falling for books with reviews boasting “Magnificent!” “Dazzling!” “Brilliant!” only to find them “Meh!” “Meh!” and “Meh!” I wondered if I wasn't just becoming a curmudgeonly crank, until I read an article that confirmed my suspicions about how bogus these reviews are: (https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-40/the-intellectual-situation/critical-attrition/).
What I have done instead of falling for another adjective is to dig, dig, dig. Every day I plumb the depths of lithub.com to discover unproclaimed, out-of-print, or forgotten books that sound promising. So I have found myself reading old books of late. Books I cannot believe I haven't already read. Books that do what I long for the most: capture me such that I can do nothing more than lie on the couch the entire day, lost in another, compelling world, often bursting into tears at the end.
One such book is Samantha Hunt's The Seas, a magical realism novel first published in 2004. What is it about? Everything. The unnamed young narrator of The Seas is a misfit who lives in a Northern town and whose father, a sailor, walked into the ocean eleven years earlier and never returned. Because of a story he used to tell her about herself, she believes she's a mermaid. That's just the beginning. Still grieving her father's suicide, she falls hard for an Iraq War veteran thirteen years her senior and, in the throes of sexual awakening, questions about faith, and a melting planet, she tries to find solid ground. The book is entrancing, unsettling and left me wondering about how we know what's real. I read it in one uninterrupted five hour stretch, unwilling to put it down, wondering at the end: Is she mentally ill? Is she a scientist? Is she a mermaid? In the best of all possible ways the book made me question everything.
Here are a few samples of Hunt's gorgeous writing:
The young narrator’s description of her infatuation with Jude is so strangely physical and offbeat that with one sentence you are swallowed up in her world, churning with the anguish peculiar to the sexual longing of youth:
“He has never kissed me despite his kissing most girls who live here, this far north. Jude thinks he is too old for me. I think I could cut a strip of flesh from his upper arm and eat it.”
When she describes how seeing Jude with other women affects her, the unexpected analogy, the improper grammar, draws you in, creates empathy. You see her, know more about her than simply her lovesickness. You glean something about her heart, her mind, how she feels and sees the world:
“When I see Jude with women that I don't know I feel my eyes are suffocating me. What I see is choking me. Jude's girlfriends hurt me. They take my breath away and leave a mark like the bright-blue residue on my eyes after flash photography. In the moment that I stop breathing the picture of whatever burned me becomes trapped. I'll see a blue after image and it looks like Jude in a cheap bar with a woman cheaper than me.”
She's so serious that her vision is being affected that she gets an appointment at the eye doctor:
“When I called to make an appointment a tired nurse inquired, ‘Well, what seems to be the problem?’ So I told her I was in love so badly that it was affecting my vision.”
This makes me both laugh out loud and feel her heartbreak.
Since she’s a mermaid, she thinks of returning to the ocean, but while on the shore she sees a fish flopping on the sand. Going up to it she discovers it’s King Neptune and she tell him her plans. Then he warns her:
“Don't forget that the ocean is full of everything except mercy.”
As a reader I believe every single word of that. King Neptune tells her things her mother doesn’t know to tell her. And she listens.
In explaining why their small town is plagued by alcoholism, their citizens despised by others, the young narrator brings a boundless, unexacting heart that comes not from and outsider’s sympathy but from an insider’s deep knowing of suffering:
“There is little else to do here besides get drunk and it seems to make what is small, us, part of something that is drowned and large, something like the bottom of the sea, something like outer space. Drinking helps us continue living in remote places because, thankfully, here there is no one to tell us just how shallow we are.”
It is impossible not to love this narrator—her longing, her smarts, her inability to fit in, and her logic that being a mermaid explains everything. I love her not paternalistically, but because she is so nimble in a world that makes no sense to her, and because she permits possible realities that most of us work hard to keep at bay.
You can buy The Seas at your local bookstore. If they don't have it in stock, please ask them to order it rather than ordering it online. Really, you can wait the five days. Whatever you do, if you want good books to get published, please don't order it on Amazon. Here's why: https://medium.com/@andyhunter777/every-book-lover-should-fear-this-graph-4f16d85bf2b1
But if you don't have a local bookstore, order it from Bookshop at: https://bookshop.org/books/the-seas-9798200384518/9781947793569
or Barnes and Noble at: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/seas-samantha-hunt/1006544149?ean=9781947793569
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >