Samantha Hunt’s The Seas (2004)
Picador, 2006

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

Samantha Hunt’s debut begins: “The highway only goes south from here.” You might think that this will be a linear tale. But no, by the end of the first four pages, it’s obvious that there is nothing clear and simple about this story.

It is not a quiet day at sea, with the tide dribbling up and down the shore like an infant’s shallow breathing in a delicate, wakeful sleep. It’s a rush of water, waves crashing like they do in the trailer for “From Here to Eternity”, a cacophony like a monstrous man’s snores after too much tequila.

And, oh my, this is a beautiful and overwhelming fantastic tale.

But back to “here”, from which the highway only goes south.

Where is here? It’s a very small town, “built on a steep and rocky coast so that the weathered houses are stacked like shingles, or like the rows of razor wire in a prison, one on top of the other up the hill”.

If you love spare prose with bursts of imagery like this one, you will sink into The Seas with delight.

(It will help if you don’t mind the sensation of sinking, because there isn’t a plot that will act as a life-preserver for you whilst you enjoy the language and the curiously circular story.)

Here has a sense of foreboding, and the narrator feels it pressing in upon her. She is a prisoner and this debut novel details her confinement.

“People here are accustomed to drunks. We have the highest rate of alcoholism in the country and this fact is repeated so often I thought we should put it on the Chamber of Commerce sign at the town line that welcomes tourists. More alcoholics per capita ! Enjoy your visit!”

People here not only accept a certain amount of intoxication, it’s defined a new standard of living, a permanent state of viewing the world that encourages the blurring — the fracturing, even the transformation — of reality.

It’s a wonder+full and disturbing thing to behold.

Behold, not observe, because Samantha Hunt’s novel reaches back to old wonder tales, to stories with sirens and undines, heroes and villains, so that with word choice and tone, The Seas feels like an ancient and contemporary tale all of a piece.

Our narrator, who is a mermaid, an undine, values storytelling too, and she listens to Jude’s tales of life on land with particular attentiveness.  (This even includes his experiences as a soldier in Iraq, but those are told reluctantly and later in the novel.)

He tells her ordinary stories, with a beer in hand, when she stops by at his house in the afternoons and she says that “those are all stories I like to hear. He tells them and he makes the world seem enormous, like the stories are a torch he is shoving into the dark corner pushing the perimeters back farther and farther.”

Samantha Hunt tells her story with a similarly determined confidence and her characters seem larger than life. But that could be part of an illusion.

“There is little else to do here besides get drunk and it seems to make what is small, us, part of something that is drowned and large, something like the bottom of the sea, something like outer space. Drinking helps us continue living in remote places because, thankfully, here there is no one to tell us just how swallowed we are.”

Even those who visit here, like the travelling optometrist, understand that the regular rules do not apply. There are countless tests — not only eye tests, but scientific experiments and the Church of Scient*logy personality tests — and endless questioning of strangenesses — apparitions, floating detritus, ancient gods and flippered women — but there is no firm resolution, no solid ground.

In fact, nothing about The Seas might be as the reader expects. From that first straight line, twisted in the current of the first chapter’s poetic prose and the narrator’s unique vision of the world of here, the reader is at sea.

Or perhaps simply sitting here.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 8 of 20 (Samantha Hunt)

Originality Narrator=Mermaid
Readability Requires total immersion in style
Author’s voice Ebbs and flows, with high tide, eddies, and typhoons
Narrative structure Stormy weather with no ballast
Gaffes Couple of typos (Why buy software? Hire an editor.)
Expectations McSweeney’s sweetheart (love them); Orange shortlist 2009

Companion Reads:
Andrew Kaufman’s The Waterproof Bible (2009);
Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (2002);
Michael Crummey’s Galore (2009).