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Sea Change: Waving? Drowning? Hard to tell

November 16, 2011

Sea Change
Jeremy Page
Penguin November 2011
$15.00 273 pages

As I finished reading Sea Change, I thought of a poem I’d read in high school.

Not Waving but Drowning, by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Sea Change is a dreamlike, slowly unfolding story. Guy has been living on a boat, meandering around the waters of England for five years, haunted by the memory of a family tragedy. At sea, he has set up a ritual of writing a journal of an imaginary life, where his family is whole, and touring around America. Scenes from his imagined life emerge and shift into the narrative of his real, solitary life on his boat. In a way, he’s telling himself a parallel story, to make sense of his past.
Shifting back and forth, both stories are full of lovely turns of phrase. Sea Change is full of beautiful imagery, gorgeously described. I appreciated the way the language and the intent gaze of scenes worked. There were entire passages I wanted read aloud to me, as if they were poetry. Read in a gravelly, English-accented voice, the way I imagine Guy would sound, after spending time with his character. Guy and his young daughter, Freya, crouching down to peer at a drop of water on a leaf.  Old men playing blues guitar at a roadside inn in the deep south. A school of mackerel swarming around Guy’s boat, as he catches fish for his supper. Then him cooking and eating the fish. Lovely to read.
However gorgeous its craft, that much closely meditative language made the pacing of the story slow and strange. It was difficult to find a reading stride at first. Read a few pages, marveled at the language. Set it down. My attention wandered, or I did.  Although there are two stories, both focus more on setting and scenery, on the slow evolution of emotional nuance rather than linear destination. I had trouble staying patient with some of the meandering. Part of this is on me, rather than the book, I know. I do tend to read a lot of very plot-intensive novels that drive forward at a pretty steady clip.  I understand that literary fiction asks for a much different attention span, and, again, the language was definitely nice to savor.
Sea Change belongs to a set of stories I’ve always thought of as underwater sorts of novels. And, I mean that as a description of the style, not the plotting. (Although here, obviously, it works in both respects.) Slowly Quietly tragic stories. Close focus on a family, often. Dialogue, and even narrative, seeping slowly, feeling saturated. Emotions feeling muted, sad, pensive sighs. Eyes stinging with tears, but more in a holding pattern than an all-out tearjerker. Jodi Picoult seems like a famous example of a master of the underwater novel. I’ve never been able to pin down an actual literary word that makes as much sense to me to describe this sort of underwater book.
My uncle teaches an English class about the literature of the sea, which is what led me to request and review this book. I’m planning to hand Sea Change off to him at Thanksgiving.  And maybe, I will take a look at his syllabus, to try another novel with a maritime focus.
I reviewed this book for BlogHer Book Club. I am being compensated for my honest review.
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