Synopses & Reviews
For the first time in paperback, here is the bestselling novel by "a writer of extraordinary gifts" (Tobias Wolff). Stunning, hypnotic, spare, The Seal Wife
tells the story of a young scientist and his consuming love for a woman known only as the Aleut, a woman who refuses to speak.
A novel of passions both dangerous and generative, The Seal Wife explores the nature of desire and its ability to propel an individual beyond himself and outside convention. Kathryn Harrison brilliantly re-creates the Alaskan frontier during the period of the First World War as she explores with deep understanding the interior landscape of the human psyche a landscape eerily continuous with the splendor and terror of the frozen frontier and the storms that blow over the earth and its face.
"Obsessions are Harrison's forte (The Binding Chair, etc.) and here she plumbs the mind of a young man deprived of companions, diversions and even the basic amenities of civilization who develops a passion for a woman whose very remoteness feeds his desire. In 1915, 26-year-old Bigelow Greene is sent to establish a U.S. weather station in Anchorage, a primitive settlement where the sled dogs howl all night in the 20-hour-long winter darkness. Bigelow is a single-minded man; he first becomes obsessed with the idea of building a huge kite to measure air temperature high in the atmosphere and thus enable long-range forecasting. But he's soon smitten with a woman the locals call the Aleut. She's mysterious, enigmatic, virtually mute sex between she and Bigelow is wordless and when he discovers that she's left Anchorage, Bigelow almost goes mad with longing. Eventually, he succumbs to the lure of another woman, Miriam Getz, the daughter of the storekeeper. She, too, is mute by choice, and she proves to be a demon, the very opposite of the self-contained Aleut. Bigelow is caught in her trap. As Harrison describes the black loneliness of winter and the mosquito-infested summer days, the mood grows darker and more suspenseful, emblematic of Bigelow's desolate psyche. In perfect control of the spare narrative, Harrison writes mesmerizing, cinematically vivid scenes: Native American laborers fascinated by Caruso recordings; the gigantic kite nearly dragging Bigelow to his death off a cliff and, later, soaring into the turbulent sky of a rousing storm. Given these ominous events, and for those who know the Celtic legend of the seal wife, the ending is all the more surprising." Publishers Weekly
"Intricately wrought...Harrison imbues her solitary silence with a stately air of self-possession." Maria Russo, The New York Times Book Review
"The novels undertow of anguish will resonate with anyone who has tried to make sense of desire....Chilled to perfection." People
"Painterly in its pearlescent evocation of the Alaskan landscape, steeped in myth and the magic of science, this is a delectably moody, erotic, and provocative cross-cultural love story." Booklist
"Set in Alaska in 1915, it tells the story of a young scientist's consuming love for a woman known as the Aleut, a woman who never speaks, who refuses to reveal so much as her name." Born and educated in midwestern cities, Bigelow is sent north by the United States government to establish a weather observatory in Anchorage. But what could have prepared him for the loneliness of a railroad town with more than two thousand men and only a handful of women, or for winter nights twenty hours long? And what can protect him from obsession obsession with a woman who seems in her silence and mystery to possess the power to destroy his life forever, and obsession with the weather kite he invents, a kite he hopes will fly higher than any has ever flown before and will penetrate the secrets of the heavens?
About the Author
Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written a memoir, The Kiss. Her personal essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers Magazine, and other publications. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.
Reading Group Guide
1. Kathryn Harrison has been hailed as a master of “spare narrative”. Why might the prose of The Seal Wife
be characterized as “spare”? Discuss examples or particular passages that highlight this quality of Harrisons writing. What effect does this style have on the novel as a whole, or on your ability to imagine the time and place in which it is set?
2. In The Seal Wife, Harrison explores the relationship between physical and emotional suffering. Bigelow is subject to the harsh Alaskan climate, to which he is unaccustomed, as well as to the simultaneous and profound effects of an unexpected obsession. How do these aspects of Bigelows inner and outer lives interact? How does Harrison express the theme of suffering-its causes and consequences-through other characters in the novel?
3. What effect does Bigelows realization that the Aleut is not unable to speak, but rather unwilling, have on her overall characterization? Does this understanding affect or alter your sense of the dynamics of their relationship? If so, how?
4. Over the course of the novel, speech (and the lack thereof) becomes a prominent thematic thread. The Aleut allows Bigelow into her home and her bed, but never speaks, though he does so “more volubly to her than . . . to anyone else.” At what other points in the book, and through which characters, is the theme of speech explored? What might Harrison be trying to convey through her use of speech as a link in Bigelows relationships, especially with women?
5. Despite the noteworthy dearth of women at Bigelows Alaskan outpost, he engages in relationships with several throughout the book. Describe the novels key female characters, and discuss the nature of Bigelows relationship with each. In what ways are these women different? Similar? How does Bigelow change or grow as a result of these relationships?
6. The various types of power dynamics between men and women-Bigelow and the Aleut, Getz and Miriam, and so on-are at the core of The Seal Wife. Describe and discuss some of the important male/female relationships in the book. What conclusions can you draw at novels end about Harrisons ideas regarding sex and power? In many of the relationships through which the theme of sex and power emerges, there is a direct correlation between speech and power. How do the various qualities of gender, sex, speech, and power interact throughout the book?
7. As much attention as is paid to Bigelows inner obsession with the Aleut, equal attention is paid to his professional passion for charting the weather, his obsession with “recording a narrative that unfolds invisibly to most people.” How do Bigelows passions correspond to each other? In what ways are they parallel, and in what ways might they be directly related? What effects do these consuming obsessions have on Bigelow? How do they affect his ability to relate to others, understand himself, and achieve his goals?
8. When the heavy sun appears, rolling sullenly along the horizon, it reveals landscapes of unutterable splendor, ice glazing every twig, turning gravel to diamonds, garbage to ransoms. . . . But what he described as grandeur in last years letters to his mother and sister now strikes him as threatening, the inlets water black and violent, heaving under a mantle of splintered ice.
In such passages, Harrison uses richly metaphorical language to describe the Alaskan landscape as seen through Bigelows eyes. While such descriptions provide a vivid sense of setting, they also provoke questions of physical realism versus emotional perspective. How might Bigelows literal vision of his surroundings be a reflection or projection of his inner state at any given moment in the book? Find and discuss a few passages throughout the novel that illuminate this relationship. How does Harrisons depiction of the landscape change in relation to Bigelows emotional evolution? What other “realistic” aspects of Bigelows surroundings (other characters, professional pursuits, and so on) provide a mirror for his inner narrative?
9. Discuss the title of the novel. In terms of its mythic implications, what might it convey about the story and its characters? A parallel is drawn throughout the book, particularly at its end, between the Aleut and a captured seal. What implications does this comparison have for the outcome of Bigelow and the Aleuts relationship and story? How might the Aleuts consistent qualities of self-possession and self-awareness be reconciled with the implied conclusion?
10. Bigelow seems to have achieved a sense of balance and resolve by the end of the novel, a composure at the other extreme of the emotional spectrum from the air of obsession that permeates the book. Discuss the arc of Bigelows character development. What does his emotional evolution imply about the relationships between his emotional and professional pursuits? How does he use potentially self-destructive feelings and behaviors to achieve creative success and emotional balance? How do you feel about the end of the novel?