Sometimes I feel like a mystery even to myself. When I went to the library a few weeks ago to pick up a bunch of holds, I thought for sure that the one book I had waited for the longest would knock my socks off (turns out I was wrong). If anything, I was probably most dubious about Samantha Hunt’s The Seas. Her most recent novel, Mr. Splitfoot, is one of the more unusual books I’ve read, and it was one of my favorites last year. I was kicking around the idea of re-reading that one when I decided to put The Seas, her debut novel, on hold at the library. The book jacket probably has the shortest description I’ve ever seen:
A lovesick and awkward young woman, haunted by the ocean that her father disappeared into years before, convinces herself she is a mermaid to escape her dreary, small town life and find her true identity.
It’s short, but it smacks of the fantastical. It practically screams EXPERIMENTAL. From that description, you probably would expect at least a few sections with run-on sentences that go on for several pages at a time. After all, nothing says EXPERIMENTAL like stream-of-consciousness, amirite? She convinces herself she’s a mermaid…why did I check this out again? I’m not a big fan of fantasy, after all.
Here’s how it begins:
The highway only goes south from here. That’s how far north we live. There aren’t many roads out of town, which explains why so few people ever leave. Things that are unfamiliar are a long way off and there is no direct route to these things. Rather it’s a street to a street to a road across a causeway to a road across a bridge to a road to another road before you reach the highway.
The narrator is nineteen, living in a house with her mother and paternal grandfather. Her father disappeared into the ocean when she was eight. Before he left, at the breakfast table, he told her she was a mermaid. She believes now he was telling her they were from the ocean, and she awaits his return:
People often suggest that it would be better if we knew for certain whether or not my father is dead rather than just disappeared. That to me seems cruel, as if they want me to abandon all hope. That is how dreary people try to keep things here on dry land.
Despite them, I remain hopeful. Even though the way I remember my father and these things he once said is becoming more and more like the way a page of paper yellows with time or the way a dream slips ahead of the waking dreamer or the way people get hard-skinned with age and use that hard skin like a file to toughen up their children. Am I mermaid? I once was certain. But now the older I get, the vaguer things become.
She loves a man named Jude, and Iraq war veteran who is fourteen years older than she is, but although Jude cares for her he does not return her romantic feelings. The thing about this book, about Hunt’s writing, is that she normalizes the fantastical. The narrator—who is isolated and lonely, with no friends her own age—for a good portion of the story seems simply quirky and naïve, a young woman who has held on too long to childhood because she’s unsure how to become an adult, especially in a place with so few opportunities for her, so few models to follow. With little else to occupy her time, she thinks about Jude. She follows him around town. The shifts are subtle. She’s quirky. And then maybe she’s depressed. And then when things take a turn the full reality becomes apparent to the reader, who is maybe just invested enough to wonder: what part is real, and what part is a fantasy? In hindsight, everything seems clear. But in the telling, not so much.
Hunt has said she wrote The Seas originally as a book of poems. She said in a Powell’s interview, “I learned to write by hanging out with poets, and I’ve never abandoned the idea that every word should be handled and adored. Making the world from 26 letters is my delight.” I love that so much: every word should be handled and adored. What a difference that is from taking words, shoving them into cheap, shiny gowns, painting their faces, and then pushing them onto a stage and forcing them to perform.
When I finished The Seas, overall I thought it was pretty good for a debut novel. But in the few days since I finished it, and then sitting down to write this post, I am starting to realize just how well-crafted this novel really is. When I was about two-thirds through the novel, I had written in my notebook, “Fever dream?” But by the end I realized that was wrong. Hunt has clear empathy for the narrator. I suppose what I mean is this: the best stories about madness show us that madness isn’t really absence of reason; it’s just that the reasons don’t make sense to the outside world. Hunt makes us see the sense. And she has this talent not just in fiction—just consider this from her 2015 article on One Direction:
Tonight the mass of girls before me in the arena, swarming like insects, raises a question of economy. How many waitressing shifts, humid summer jobs, and hours babysitting does it take to hold these five boys aloft, to lard the fiefdom? How better might these girls’ energies be spent in humanitarian projects and education? And how best to understand their mania without dismissing it as a fault of their youth or gender?
I think I have a new favorite author for my list.