The Super Fun Kids' Graphic Novel Sale

Saturday, April 29th, 2006


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 loved.'"
"Hate?" Jude says.
"No, not that feeling," my grandfather answers and looks at Jude with disappointment.
"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 alive again."

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 song.

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