Tuesday, March 22, 2011

book review: The Seas by Samantha Hunt

The Seas: A NovelThe backstory: The Seas is on the 2011 Orange Prize longlist. It's also the shortest book on the longlist, so I started with it.

My thoughts: Imagine you are Samantha Hunt. Your debut novel, which was published in the U.S. in 2004 and mostly forgotten gets a new life with its publication in the UK last year. Then it gets nominated for the Orange Prize, two years after your second novel, The Invention of Everything Else, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. It's a lovely story, and I was looking forward to reading this "modern retelling of the little mermaid story."

I am not a reader drawn to fairy tales. I'm drawn to strong writing and strong characters. The Seas was hard to read because although the writing was strong the characters were not. I did not attempt to summarize this novel because it slowly unfolds over time. Our unnamed narrator gives more details as time goes on, but she remains mysterious. I'm tempted to call her an unreliable narrator, but I 'm not convinced that's entirely the case. She sees the world differently; she thinks she's a mermaid. To others, however, she is a sad, strange girl afflicted with mental illness. I'm still not sure where reality and magical realism ultimately end in this book, and I'm quite sure that was Hunt's point.

To that end, many will love this novel. It dances around reality and fantasy without ever being firmly in both. There are some truly lovely passages that gave me hope for this book early on:
"Don't forget that the ocean is full of everything except mercy."
There were also initial portrayals of characters I adored:
"My mother is regularly torn between being herself and being my mother."
And bits of whimsy to delight:
 "He tells me about an idea he has for an opera where all the gods of all the religions of the world battle it out in song."
Ultimately, it didn't work for me. What began as peculiar honesty from our intriguing narrator and ventured into magical realism and a scientific approach to the reality of what we see quickly became flat and dull despite my enjoyment of Hunt's language. At times, I sensed this novel began as several short stories she somehow stitched together because the chapters are inconsistent lengths and all uniquely titled.

Favorite passage: "I am worn out by desire for him like a girl in some book."

The verdict: In the end, I didn't quite buy into the characters or the narrative. Despite Hunt's somewhat ironic assertion that "details make a story even as unbelievable as mine believable," neither the details nor the narrative made this novel believable, yet it couldn't compel me to suspend belief and enter its world either. Just as our narrator thinks she is a link between the ocean and earth, I felt trapped between two realities in this meandering story.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: October 3, 2004 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it for my Kindle (for only $2.99!)

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  1. Oh no! I thought that might be the case. I'm not a fan of fairy tales and I didn't enjoy The Invention of Everything Else. It isn't looking as though I'll enjoy this one :-(

  2. Hmm... I wonder if as a fairy tale lover I'll have more luck with this than you!

  3. I'm not sure this book is for me either. I may give it a try later (esp if it makes the shortlist).

  4. I'm sorry this one didn't work for you. I really enjoyed this story of how this one came to be on the list though. What an interesting tale for the author!

  5. Reading the shortest book first - TOTALLY a strategy I would use :-)

    I'm not really the biggest fairy tale fan, so I might skip this one. Thanks for the review!

  6. I'm not much for fairy tales or the re-tellings either...looks like this is one I'll pass on...too many books out there to spend time on a meandering, just okay story.
    Thanks for the honest review :)

  7. The premise of this book sounds intriguing and the plot point of whether the girl is a mermaid or just mentally ill really draws me in. I am not so sure what to think about this book now, as your reaction to it definitely sways me a little more than my initial curiosity, but I am still quite curious! Fantastic review on this book. You really did a wonderful job in all aspects!

  8. It reads very prettily but I wonder if it has that sort of emotional distance I sometimes find in lyrical literary fiction -- a wall between the readers and the characters. I'm a huge fan of fairy tales retold so I've been interested in this one!

  9. Based on your comments, I don't think I would like this one either.

  10. This is such a great review. The book sounds interesting, particularly the line about her mother and I like things that have a bit of a magical realism element to them (like Alice Hoffman's novels) Too bad you couldn't connect to the characters-- that would probably be a dealbreaker for me too :-(

  11. I quite enjoyed your response to this one, even though I had a more positive response to it myself. It might have been because I read it in almost a single sitting, so I felt quite "immersed" (sorry ::coughs::) in the story overall. (I saved this from ages ago, until I'd read more of the Orange books myself, so I'm late replying!)


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!