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 …

Library Loot

I have serious arrears in my library reading and I tried to resist, but there were three books this week that I just had to bring home. Here they are:

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The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

“Louisa is an imaginative and curious chambermaid who, while cleaning rooms at the New Yorker Hotel, stumbles across a man living permanently in room 3327, which he has transformed into a scientific laboratory. Brought together by a shared interest in the pigeons that nest in the hotel, Louisa discovers that the mysterious guest is Nikola Tesla, one of the most brilliant – and most neglected – inventors of the twentieth century.”

This is my first venture into this year’s Orange prize books. It looks promising!

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A Very Persistent Illusion by L C Tyler

“Inventor of the Sorensen-Birtwistle Revised Scale of Girl-Rage, Chris has a beautiful girlfriend (Virginia), two like able potential parents-in-law (Hugh and Daphne) and a classic sports car with a leather-covered gear stick. Impending matrimony and the car’s leaking roof seem to be the only clouds on the horizon. But his apparently comfortable world is turned upside down when Hugh dies suddenly and Daphne (after one Irish Cream too many) reveals some shocking information. Meanwhile…In an inn, in the Danube Valley, in the seventeenth century, a certain cantankerous philosopher seems to have some words of guidance for our modern-day hero. We join Virginia and Chris (and Rene) as they seek to uncover the truth about Hugh, themselves and the meaning of life.”

I liked L C Tyler’s first book (The Herring Seller’s Apprentice) so much that I ordered his second straight away. And I see from his biography that, like me, he has a border terrier. Definitely a good sign!

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That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Orange Prize-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, come twelve dazzling stories in which she turns her penetrating eye on the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Nigeria and the West. In ‘A Private Experience,’ a medical student hides from a violent riot with a poor Muslim woman whose dignity and faith force her to confront the realities and fears she’s been pushing away. In ‘Tomorrow Is Too Far,’ a woman unlocks the devastating secret that surrounds her brother’s death. The young mother at the center of ‘Imitation’ finds her comfortable life threatened when she learns that her husband back in Lagos has moved his mistress into their home. And the title story depicts the choking loneliness of a Nigerian girl who moves to an America that turns out to be nothing like the country she expected; though falling in love brings her desires nearly within reach, a death in her homeland forces her to re-examine them. Searing and profound, suffused with beauty, sorrow and longing, this collection is a resounding confirmation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s prodigious storytelling powers.”

I hear great things about Purple Hibiscus or Half a Yellow Sun, but I haven’t read either yet, so my plan is to read these short stories first and then move on to the novels.

library-loot

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.