The Seas by Samantha Hunt

A strange one this.

A debut novel longlisted for the Orange Prize two years after its author’s second novel was longlisted for the very same prize. There is no question over the books eligibility as it was first published in the United Kindom in  July last year, but it does feel odd.

And the book itself has a certain strangeness.

“One night,” I begins and close my eyes, “my father, he was very handsome, he walked into the ocean. That was eleven years ago. He hasn’t come back though and even though the police found the place on the beach where my father’s footprints disappeared into the water they never found his body. So my mother and I have been waiting. We often sit and wait on the beach just where my father’s footprints disappeared into the water. Sometimes I wait alone. We always thought he would return…”

The unnamed narrator lives with her mother and her grandfather in a seaside town. A bleak seaside town set against steep cliffs. A town that feels like a prison.

She’s still at school, dreaming of becoming a scientist and making a little pocket-money as a chambermaid. And she loves, to the point of obsession,  a sailor nearly twice her age, Jude.  She loved him before he left for Iraq, she waited, and she still loved him now that he has returned with Post Traumatic Stress. Jude is a down at heel, womanizing alcoholic, but he still keeps her close. But not too close.

At home her mother waits for her husband, still married in both heart and head. And her grandfather, her mother’s father, a retired typesetter, spends his days planning and typesetting dictionaries that will never be published, and filling his granddaughter’s head with wonderful words

And the girl, whose departed father told her that she was a gift from the sea is drawn to the water.

I’d lie down in the tub instead of my bed. At first my mother would wake me up and make me move back into my bed but after years and years she finally gave up and let me sleep there. I liked it in the tub because from the window I could see the stars and the ocean and sometimes, if it was calm, I could see the stars in the ocean. I liked the tub. If I slept with my ear against the drainpipe I could hear my parents’ conversations at night, long metallic talking that made its way up through the plumbing.

Samantha Hunt presents all of this beautifully. Her prose is light, lyrical, idiosyncratic and quite wonderfully awash with watery imagery. The melancholy of the isolated seaside town is tangible. Her characters are lightly and perfectly drawn and each one – from the lonely girl believes she will become a mermaid to the troubled veteran who can’t find his place in his hometown – has their own distinctive voice, their own role to play.

As obsessive love and the call of the ocean push the gentle storyline to a dramatic turn. It pulls all of the strands of the story together very, very cleverly, but for me the writing lost something at that point, and the magic never quite came back as the story rushed to an ending that I didn’t think quite worked.

There is considerable magic in the pages of this little book, wonderful ideas, wonderful emotions. It’s just that Samantha Hunt couldn’t quite pull off everything at the same time, couldn’t quite see things through to the end.

But such potential … maybe one day …

13 responses

  1. I put The Invention of Everything Else to one side when it hadn’t grabbed me after the first couple of chapters, and I’m afraid it hasn’t called me back since. This one does have a lot of positive attributes but it doesn’t quite come together. probably not your kind of book, but as you say its short and it’s not difficult to read so you shouldn’t have a problem sailing through if you’re planning on reading the whole list.

    • I would have definitely kept going after page 50. And I have to say that, even though I thought things went adrift later in the story, there were enough good things that I’m glad I read this one.

    • A lot of people have really like this Annie, and it’s definitely worth a try. If the quality of the writing early on hadn’t been so good I might have been less disappointed in the later chapters.

    • There’s a lot in this book that I think you’ll enjoy Verity, but for me the whole didn’t quite add up. But it is a very interesting debut and I do think that if Samanth Hunt can get everything right at the same time she could write something really amazing.

  2. I actually really liked this book for its slight oddness, and I loved her prose as I did with The Invention of Everything Else – a book I wasnt looking forward to at the time (when it was shortlisted) and then liked a lot. I think it would be fascinating, though I agree slightly unlikely, if she won with this book (her debut) and yet didnt with her second novel.

    • I loved two-thirds of this book, but I did think it lost something towards the end. The good things were more than good enough to make me want to read more by Samantha Hunt, and I will try The Invention of Everything else a second chance one day.

  3. This one didn’t quite work for me either. It was a quick read, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. I haven’t read her other book, and I am intrigued to read them in the order she wrote them. I so enjoyed her writing, but I did not love this book.

  4. I saved this review to read after I’d finished it myself, so I’m rather late in replying, and by now you know that I enjoyed it more than you did, straight through to the end. I’d wondered whether the magic would stay but, even looking back on the read, it has held its charm for me. I think it might have had something to do with the fact that I read it in almost a single sitting, so it never lost momentum, so even though I might have wished for the story to end differently, it worked for me.

  5. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: March 19, 2011 | Semicolon

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