Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel
Finished on 8/30/13
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
Overview from the author’s website:
When Georgia Quillian returns to her hometown of Miami, her husband Graham and their young son in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. The family has fled Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment, the fallout from Graham’s severe sleep disorder and Georgia’s failed business. To make matters worse, their charming three-year-old son, Frankie, has for months refused to speak a word.
Although Georgia is still grieving her mother’s death from five years earlier, her father and stepmother offer warm welcome — and a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. On a lark, Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for a reclusive artist who lives in the middle of the bay, and soon finds that time spent with the intense hermit might help Frankie find the courage to speak, and might also help her reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.
But when Graham leaves to work on a research vessel in hurricane Alley, and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is revealed, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. As a hurricane bears down on South Florida later that summer, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.
SEA CREATURES is a mesmerizing exploration of the high stakes of marriage and parenthood, the story of a woman forced to choose between her marriage, her child, and the possibility of new love.
(from the author's website)
It’s been almost three years since I read Susanna Daniel’s debut novel, Stiltsville. I loved that novel and plan to re-read it when I get the chance. I was thrilled to see her new release when it hit the shelves at work and couldn’t wait to return to the South Florida setting, with its sun and salt water and stilt houses on the bay. It took me a little longer to get invested in Georgia’s story, but once I did, I couldn’t put the book down. I marked many passages, which is always a sign of a good read. Here are just a few!
It was my husband Graham’s idea to buy the houseboat. The notion took shape on the first leg of our move from Illinois to Miami, between pulling away from the cottage in Round Lake and stopping at the county fair outside of Peoria, where we urged our three-year-old, Frankie, into a gargantuan bouncy castle. For a few minutes Frankie seemed to take some pleasure in jumping haphazardly among strangers, until he remembered that he didn’t like strangers, and staggered lock-kneed toward the exit. I mention this interlude in the long drive for one reason: a few minutes after we walked away from the enormous cartoonish castle, a gust of wind upended it, bouncing children and all. Ambulances arrived quickly. As we stood among the anxious crowd, I thought—not for the first time and not for the last—that to be a parent is terrifying. Graham once told me how the Stoics practiced imagining their own worst fears had come to pass, to make peace. But it seems to me that what worries us most—pedophiles, kidnappers, dog attacks—is least likely to happen, while what is most likely is some unimagined event. And how do we prepare for that?
I don’t sleep well—it’s a problem, yes, but it’s a problem on a par with losing your grocery list before getting to the store. I don’t talk about it, but when it does come up, people are sympathetic. Most people have a passing association with insomnia, and they know it’s an experience they don’t care to repeat. I want to tell them how much worse it can be. Perhaps the closest relative to Graham’s experience is chronic pain—recurrent migraines or crippling arthritis, for example. Living under the thumb not only of the pain itself, but also of the threat of a full-on outbreak. People with these conditions know a bit about what it’s like to live as Graham did, in perpetual discomfort and perpetual fear.
On unanticpated life-changes:
The course of a life will shift—really shift—many times over the years. But rarely will there be a shift that you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm, rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open. That morning, as Frankie and I had plodded from errand to errand, led around by the hermit’s list like animals on leashes, I’d known on some level that this was one of those times. I would like to believe that I wouldn’t again make the mistake of walking in blindly. Then again, blindly is the only way I would have walked in.
Every time I arrived at Stiltsville, I experienced a strong sense of inverted, irrational nostalgia. It was as if rather than being there in that moment, I was somewhere else, wishing I could be there. It wasn’t unlike the feeling I had sometimes after putting Frankie to bed, even after a long day, even if I’d been relieved to say good night—sometimes I was seized by the desire to wake him just to be in his presence again, to reassure myself of him. The strange reverse-nostalgia itched at me every time I stepped from the boat to the stilt house dock, and it was several minutes before I could slough it off and relax. I think as much as anything else it was a weighty sense of gratitude, as well as the foreknowledge that whatever this was—this occupation, this friendship, this parallel life—it would not last forever.
Jellyfish season came early that year. I was in the office and Charlie and Frankie were sitting in the rocking chairs on the porch, taking turns with a pair of binoculars. Through the window, I heard Charlie say, “What is it?” When I looked out, I saw Frankie make the sign we’d learned, one hand against the other, pulling away and moving back again.
I couldn’t see them at first, but a moment after they appeared the water was thick with them. They came in a wind sock pattern, a leviathan in aggregate, dense at the start before petering out. Charlie told us this was called a bloom, that it happened every summer, usually not until August. It was still only mid-July, but there had been a rash of small storms in the Atlantic, and they’d washed in prematurely.
On life in Stiltsville:
In the time I’d spent at the stilt house, I’d learned a good bit about its logistics. I knew that the generator came on only to cook meat or boil water, and for showers—Charlie didn’t abide cold water—and I knew that Charlie always closed the bedroom and bathroom doors, to cut off the hottest part of the house. I knew that on particularly beastly days, Charlie draped dark sheets over the bedroom windows, keeping out as much heat as possible. I knew that sometimes this wasn’t good enough, so he dragged one of the spare mattresses onto the eastern porch and slept there until his own bed was habitable again. I learned that there were mosquitoes at Stiltsville, but not many, and only on evenings with very little wind, and there were none of the no-see-ums that hounded us in the canal. There were a few cockroaches around, too, and once I’d asked Charlie where they came from—for a second I wondered if maybe they could swim—and he cocked his head at me. “They come with us,” he said.
There is a lot of sadness and a sense of loneliness in this novel and yet I loved the setting and the scenes of domestic life, particularly those set on the stilt house on the bay. Daniel’s writing is vivid and intensely emotional, but I didn’t love it as much as Stiltsville. Nonetheless, it’s still a winner and I look forward to another by this rising star.