Sometimes you come across a book that throws you so out of field that the only choice you make is you sit with it, go through every single page, suddenly caught in a buoyancy you didn’t think you’d enjoy until the last turn, the last sentence and last word rolls of your mouth, stuck in your mind. You don’t know whether that last breath was a sigh of relief or regret, the characters still swimming in your head.
Because as a water sign (Pisces), you know that drowning yourself in a book filled with themes of water is the next best idea, guaranteed to hook you in as the waves pull you closer, succumbing to the swell.
When I first opened The Seas (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Samantha Hunt, I knew I was in for a out-of-body, oceanic ride. What I didn’t anticipate was how deep I would be pulled under by the 19-year old narrator, a young woman whose current is unbreakable, fierce in the ways she loved.
Set in an unknown town (indicated only as “in the north”), she lives in the shadow of her father who disappeared into the ocean, the only person who believed she was a mermaid, descendant of the body of water just like him.
…my father wasn’t good at talking. He was far better at sitting silently in his armchair, smoothing the back of his head and then taking a pull off a bottle of beer he kept between his thighs. He’d sit quietly, stirring a mixture of warm water and sugar to nurse back to health a sickly black fly or a disoriented mouse who’d been poisoned by the neighbors. These are the parts of him I find impossible to cut myself loose from. They are beautiful qualities. But beauty is heavy, and though I’m young I am getting tired from carrying around the bits and shreds of my father’s beauty.
From the same waters that presumable consumed her father comes Jude, a man fourteen years her senior and who she falls in love with. Jude comes and leaves, the ocean his vessel from the war. He maintains an immutable presence in the young woman’s life, talking and discovering things, moments, histories. Always with a drink in hand, the same way her father was his whole life, he slips in and out with women more suitable to his age as our protagonist broods, struggles. She never stops pining for him. Thoughts of him engulf her, while she dreams about her father.
She lives with her mother who is equally lost in her own world, believing that her husband is still alive, just living in a far away place. Theirs is an intriguing relationship and it is only later in the book that her maternal role emerges, as the young one flounders in alternating sensibilities. Once, when our girl out of sheer emotion climbs up to sit on the roof, she discovers that her mother is already there, sitting with her own grief.
There’s also the woman’s grandfather, whose presence emanates a kind of joyful light in their home, as he goes about his days like he used to in the printing press–typesetting. He continues to write sentences, letters in the same way when his wife was still alive, backwards and in different kinds of typefaces, efforts so lighthearted but still steeped deep in melancholy.
My father has been gone a long time, eleven years. Still my grandfather, mother, and I keep a lazy vigil, if that combination of words is possible, lazy + vigil. We watch for him, even in the winter though we are so far north that sometimes the ocean freezes. It is dangerous. Icebergs as big as boulders form. If my father decided to return in the winter he might get crushed by the ice. We don’t move away from this small town because we are waiting for him to return.
But more than the unrequited love story and the woman who hopes to reunite with her father, The Seas is a haunting read that combines elements of longing, how to live in the fringes and surprisingly, stories of war. I’m not sure how Hunt was able to weave everything so tenderly, in spite of the anguish settling within the hearts of all her characters. It is haunting in the most surprising places, but humorous at times. Whether it’s by the ocean where she watches endlessly, or deep in the tub where she learns how to breathe, Hunt captures the humanity of the little family and all the people in between.
Hunt also employs a style that would delight logophiles, as daughter, mother and grandfather all try to come up with different words to express moments, such as when they try to come up with a word for “the feelings one retains for someone he once loved,” or when they try to figure out the right typeface to use (Franklin Gothic?) or when Palatino letters tumble out of the young woman’s reach as she tries to flee their attic.
In her Introduction, the writer Maggie Nelson wrote that The Seas “scalded in its beauty.” That years after its release, she read it again in one sitting, and one more time, and another time. I am a lover of many books but this one by Hunt is something I see myself rereading time and time again, Piscean willing to be submerged, to be washed over in its breathtaking deluge.
Some nights I want Jude so badly I imagine I am giving birth to him. I pretend to sweat. I toss and wring my insides out. Mostly I think this because that’s how badly I want Jude’s head between my legs. It never occurs to me that I imagine he’s my baby because loving him hurts or because with the way he drinks, he acts like one. I never think that. Instead I think, I will create Jude inside my head and that way he will be inside of me which is almost as good as fucking or at least pricking our fingers and touching them together.
* * *
The Seas (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Samantha Hunt with an introduction by Maggie Nelson
Tin House (232 pages)
July 10, 2018 (first published 2004)
My rating: ★★★★★
Note: Thank you to the wonderful folks at Tin House for my copy of this book.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.