Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel
In the summer of 1992, thirty-six year old Georgia Quillian packs up the island cottage in Illinois and drives down to Miami, Florida, with her husband Graham and their two-year-old son, Frankie. Graham has a rare sleep disorder called parasomnia – in fact, their trouble sleeping was how Georgia and Graham met, at a sleep clinic they dubbed Detention – and during the rare times he does sleep at night, he sleepwalks and does strange things. After he crashed through a glass window at a hotel, he lost his position at the university and the neighbours spoke of how creepy the family was in the media. It was time to leave, and Graham had been offered a position at the university in Miami which seemed fortuitous, using his IT skills as part of a team researching hurricanes.
Georgia had grown up in Miami, and her father lives there still, with his second wife, Lidia. Lidia’s house backs onto a canal, and with his usual tendency towards recklessness, Graham proposes they buy a houseboat. They rename it Lullaby, and tether it to Lidia’s dock. While Graham is busy at the lab, Georgia busies herself pruning Lidia’s plants and looking after Frankie, who hasn’t spoken or made little more than slight sounds since he was eighteen months old. They’ve taken him to several paediatricians and specialists, but still don’t have a diagnosis or much of a plan to help him start speaking again.
In an effort to help and keep Georgia busy, Lidia recommends she take up a part-time job as an assistant to Charlie Hicks, a man her father’s age who lives in one of the fourteen houses built on stilts in the Bay of Biscayne, called Stiltsville. Georgia remembers Charlie only vaguely; his wife Vivian had been a friend of her mother’s, who often had parties at the house when Georgia’s father, a musician, was away for months at a time. But everyone knows the story, how they lost their daughter, how Charlie left to live in Stiltsville like a regular old hermit while Vivian’s health deteriorated and she ended up in a nursing home. Charlie is a quiet man who prefers solitude, but with the help of Frankie, whom Charlie makes time for, Georgia develops a warm friendship with “the hermit”, and greatly admires the painstaking artwork he creates.
When Graham leaves for what was meant to be five weeks on board a ship with the rest of the scientific team in Hurricane Alley, to test their work, things change in subtle ways. Frankie starts to speak, and Georgia draws closer to Charlie and begins to see that there may be a connection between Frankie’s selective mutism and his father’s disturbing nocturnal wanderings. As news of a big hurricane – Hurricane Andrew – approaches, Georgia’s decisions lead to the same recklessness she sees in her husband, and with an outcome just as terrifying.
For the first half or so of this book, I was full of admiration and praise for Sea Creatures. The prose was clean and smooth and unpretentious, the story simple and equally unpretentious, with a focus on Georgia as a mother and wife, trying to find her way and get some firm footing. Yet towards the end, it became more eventful, and the events that occur were not, I felt, in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book. It all got surprisingly melodramatic, and this drama – or we could call it “Georgia’s decisions and their predictable fallout” – overshadowed and let down the strength of the book as a whole.
Perhaps if there had been less foreshadowing from Georgia herself, who narrates from the perspective of, I think it was, eight years into the future, it would have read more naturally. And perhaps if Georgia were less aloof from the reader, someone I could understand and relate to better, her choices wouldn’t have seemed so … tacky. Because I did find that the big drama around the time of Hurricane Andrew in August 1992 was almost cheesy in the way it was presented.
Georgia narrates in an omniscient, carefully-crafted storytelling style. She shares inside information about Graham and his childhood, for example, as if she were an author writing a story. It’s a bit odd at first, but her ability to shed light on others adds a great deal to the depth of the story, which focuses on the characters and their connections to each other, their secrets and their desire to live a life of their choosing. Each character has the feel of a carefully crafted doll or game piece, each from a different game but occupying the same playing board, moving around like little islands, sometimes gently bumping into each other, sometimes connecting and sticking, like magnets, until something should pull them apart. I don’t know how else to describe it, but that was how the characters move through this book. And for the most part, I really enjoyed it.
The dynamic between Georgia and Graham and Frankie is at the heart of the story, and Georgia’s increasingly unflinching analysis of her marriage and the relationship between Frankie and his father is the main point of the whole novel. Everything that happens is a catalyst or an influence or a bump in the road on this journey of Georgia’s. I could relate to Georgia in some ways, as we did have a few things in common – mostly a toddler – but Georgia is an over-protective, second-guessing, hovering sort of mother, so afraid that she’s a bad mother or the reason Frankie won’t talk that her ability to clearly reflect on her own parenting style or her decisions is clouded by this anxiety.
There was no real sense of chemistry between Georgia and Graham, not in how Georgia relates their relationship’s early years, though I found Graham to be one of the most interesting characters in the whole novel. Far from black-and-white, Graham both loved his son and was impatient with his speech problem. He was considerate towards him but never really wanted to spend the quality time with him. Likewise, Frankie both adored his father – as all small children do – and feared him. It was Graham I pitied the most, though, when all was said and done. He came out the victim, in the end, I suppose, considering there was nothing he could do about his sleep disorder or what it made him do, the rare times he actually slept.
There is another character in this novel, one that Daniel clearly has a keen interest in: Stiltsville itself. Her first novel, Stiltsville, was set there as well, and it features prominently in Sea Creatures. In fact, the setting of Miami – which comes across as a small, somewhat sleepy town – as well as Stiltsville comes across strongly, and was one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel. I’ve never been to Florida, but the area in all its heat and reptilian glory came vividly to life.
The theme of sea creatures, too, was a rather beautiful one, and nicely incorporated. The obvious representation was in the artwork that Charlie Hicks creates, but it radiates out into Frankie’s delight with snorkeling and the little sea creature toys Charlie gives him and the paper mobile he makes for him, as well as the scene in which Graham rescues a giant turtle from a lobster net (sharks had already bitten off one flipper). There’s the woman who lives across the canal from Lidia who often dives into the alligator-infested waters for a swim (in fact, “recklessness” could be another theme of the novel), and the sense that the human characters on land are their own kind of creature, the way they’re presented. (Coming back to that analogy from before, of the pieces from different games – different species – all occupying the same game board, in the way of sea creatures occupying the same sea.) There’s something poignant and tender and genuinely heartfelt about the sea creatures, and it’s also a way into understanding Charlie and humanising him.
I have a lot more to say about this book – it would be ideal for a book club discussion! – but my reviews are always too long so I need to wrap things up. Overall, I did like this book, I liked it a lot, it was atmospheric and felt authentic, realistic, without ever being dull. It was easy to become emotionally invested, as a silent, unobtrusive observer, and it was a story I was interested in. But the drama of the ending (not the actual end of the book, but the climactic events that signal major shifts and an ending to the story of that summer) was like an off, jarring note in an otherwise lovely musical performance. I was amazingly disappointed in how things went, because up until then this had been a wonderfully captivating, well-written story.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.
Other stops on the tour:
Tuesday, July 30th: The Well-Read Redhead
Wednesday, July 31st: BookNAround
Thursday, August 1st: Luxury Reading
Monday, August 5th: nomadreader
Wednesday, August 7th: Time 2 Read
Thursday, August 8th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, August 12th: Read Lately
Monday, August 12th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Tuesday, August 13th: Bluestalking
Wednesday, August 14th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Thursday, August 15th: Giraffe Days
Monday, August 19th: Melissa Firman
Tuesday, August 20th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Wednesday, August 21st: 2 Kids and Tired Book Reviews
Monday, August 26th: BoundByWords
Tuesday, August 27th: The Blog of Lit Wits
Wednesday, August 28th: A Bookish Way of Life