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…”
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 …