The Seas: A Novel
by Samantha Hunt
The Little Mermaid Grows Up
A review by Alexis Smith
Samantha Hunt has written a layered debut novel, part fairy tale, part bildungsroman,
and part meditation on the imprecision of language. It is a story that will sound
vaguely familiar: a girl grows up in a small town, with its small town locales
(laundromat, shipyard, shabby houses), its small town occupations (primarily drinking),
and its small town tragedies (men lost at sea). In this setting, the unnamed narrator
longs to escape her dreary existence as a seasonal worker in the sardine factory
and sometime chambermaid at a rundown motel called the Seas. The twist is that
this heroine believes she is a mermaid.
This part of the story should sound familiar, too: a young woman, who is secretly
a mermaid, lives on land and falls in love with a sailor. In this case, the
young woman's father once told her she was a mermaid, and later walked into
the sea, never to be seen again. And the sailor, Jude, is a veteran of the Gulf
War and thirteen years older than the young woman. What makes Hunt's novel particularly
compelling, is the narrative voice. Unlike a fairy tale, this story is told
in a clear, unfaltering, and totally unreliable first person. The narrator spins
a tale full of strange scientific findings, arcane nautical history, poetic
delusions, and obsessive love. The setting provides the perfect foggy, ethereal
atmosphere for the heroine, who lives in a crooked old house with her mother
and paternal grandfather, both of whom are in various stages of grief over the
losses of their spouses.
Like Hans Christian's Andersen's The Little Mermaid, the heroine of
Hunt's novel struggles to communicate with those around her -- though not because
she is mute. Her difficulty has more to do with her inability to process her
father's suicide. In fact, all the characters of The Seas have problems
expressing their feelings, and this inability to tell the tale, as it were,
manifests itself in a preoccupation with words and their various meanings. Throughout
the novel Hunt explores the ways in which language evades, escapes, or fails
the characters. This aspect of the novel, which includes occasional dictionary
entries, could come off as precious, but Hunt executes it with precision and
grace. Each character has a different sort of preoccupation with language, and
in a novel in which almost everyone is "stuck" physically and emotionally,
their fixations become charming idiosyncrasies.
The grandfather is a particularly interesting character. A former typesetter
who wooed his wife by sending her backwards love notes in trays of type, he
has been setting the type of his own personal dictionary for years. In one passage
he asks the narrator, her mother, and Jude about the Russian word razbliuto.
"We don't have a word to match it but we should. We should develop it
tonight because the word means, 'the feelings one retains for someone he once
"Hate?" Jude says.
"No, not that feeling," my grandfather answers and looks at Jude
"Betrayal," my mother says without looking away from her book.
"No," my grandfather says. "It's the little house love moved
out of, maybe a hermit crab moves in and carries the house across the floor
of the tidal pool. The lover sees the old love moving and it looks like it's
The magic of this story is in the lines like the grandfather's. A word is lost,
or hasn't come into being yet, and in its place is a whole narrative that endeavors
to express it. The mother and grandfather both hold onto feelings for their
lost loves, and just as they have no word in their language equivalent to razbliuto,
they have no words for the losses they feel.
Hunt's characters are so jammed up with stories -- losses they need to express
and grieve -- that words physically manifest around them. Jude first meets the
narrator at the beach when they are both looking for something in the water.
"We watched the water between us rushing back out to sea and I swear I
saw the ocean fill up with words, like Jude was bleeding all the things he couldn't
tell anyone because it might kill him." Jude finally does tell his story,
but I won't ruin the surprise: suffice it to say that a war in the desert is
a shocking, but not unwelcome, addition to this dark, watery novel.
The narrator, too, is afraid of what speaking her story might do to her. Instead
of facing the fact of her father's suicide, she creates the mermaid narrative
to give order to her unmanageable grief. An outcast in the depressed, alcoholic
town, her secret, mythical identity explains her feelings of difference and
alienation. Hunt never names the narrator, as if she were a character so foreign
that it takes a whole story to figure out who she is. But to readers, she is
an uncannily familiar character, and her tale is as intoxicating as a siren