Closer by Sea by Perry Chafe
2023 Simon & Schuster
Finished on November 29, 2023
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
From the writer and producer of the hit TV shows Republic of Doyle and Son of a Critch, a poignant coming-of-age debut novel about the mysterious disappearance of a young girl and the fragility of childhood bonds, set against the backdrop of a small island community adapting to an ever-changing landscape.
In 1991, on a small, isolated island off the coast of Newfoundland, twelve-year-old Pierce Jacobs struggles to come to terms with the death of his father. It’s been three years since his dad, a fisherman, disappeared in the cold, unforgiving Atlantic, his body never recovered. Pierce is determined to save enough money to fix his father’s old boat and take it out to sea. But life on the island is quiet and hard. The local fishing industry is on the brink of collapse, threatening to take an ages-old way of life with it. The community is hit even harder when a young teen named Anna Tessier goes missing.
With the help of his three friends, Pierce sets out to find Anna, with whom he shared an unusual but special bond. They soon cross paths with Solomon Vickers, a mysterious, hermetic fisherman who may have something to do with the missing girl. Their search brings them into contact with unrelenting bullies, magnificent sea creatures, fierce storms, and glacial giants. But most of all, it brings them closer to the brutal reality of both the natural and the modern world.
Part coming-of-age story, part literary mystery, and part suspense thriller, Closer by Sea is a page-turning, poignant, and powerful novel about family, friendship, and community set at a pivotal time in modern Newfoundland history. It is an homage to a people and a place, and above all it captures that delicate and tender moment when the wonder of childhood innocence gives way to the harsh awakening of adult experience.
I was not familiar with either Perry Chafe or either of the TV shows he has written and produced, but when I heard about Closer by Sea, particularly the Newfoundland setting, I was intrigued. The friendship between three twelve-year-old boys and a new girl in town, a fishing village, and a missing teenager recall both Stephen King's novella, The Body, and Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. I was quickly drawn into Chafe's story, curious to learn more about the mysterious Solomon and what he might be hiding about Anna's disappearance. This coming-of-age tale reads like a screenplay, and I could easily envision the friends stumbling about the island, searching for clues (and evidence of a possible murder) in a creepy, dark, ramshackle of a building. Throw in a budding crush, a gang of bullies, teenage angst, and a mysterious stranger, and you've got what suddenly feels like a juvenile or YA novel. The narrative begins to lose momentum halfway in, but with less than a total of 300 pages, it wasn't a struggle to keep reading. Good, but not great literature.