Unmoored by a child’s death
A father drifts into a fantasy world of what might have been
In the wake of his successful first novel, “Salt,’’ scriptwriter Jeremy Page returns to the South English coast to fiddle with the boundaries of time. Once again, in “Sea Change,’’ he teases readers’ distinctions between fantasy and reality.
After a dramatic flashback, the new novel opens with Guy, a sometime piano teacher and full-time romantic, marking his fifth year on a barge, bobbing between sea and shore, past and present, despair and hopefulness. “The Flood is a ninety-foot Dutch coastal barge, built in Voorhaven yard in Scheveningen in 1926, and till the seventies it freighted cod-liver oil between the three H’s of the North Sea: Hamburg, Harwich and Hoek van Holland. . . . . It’s moored to a stretch of quay on an empty part of the Backwater Estuary, in Essex.”
It’s been five years since Guy’s adored daughter, Freya, was killed in an accident. Five years since he and his wife, Judy, made a suicide pact, then broke it and went their separate ways. Five years of living in the past by recalling the days with Freya and living in an imaginary present by writing a fictional journal about Freya growing up under the loving watch of her parents. “I wanted to see how it might have turned out, you know, if things had been different.”
Page’s highly figurative style offers recurring metaphors for getting lost, escaping, and being reborn. Wild animals abound — from sharks swimming nearby to a stallion rampaging across a peaceful field to wild dogs roaming the shore to a sodden goldfinch rescued from a briny detour.
In Guy’s engaging journal, he chauffeurs Judy and Freya across the southern United States. Together the adventurous trio skims highways, listens to country music, shops, eats doughnuts and hamburgers, and admires swimming pools. “They should be crossing America with the naturally curving grace of a line strung between the two points of arrival and departure. But instead the curve seems to be turning downward, as if running out of energy as it falls. Flying on one engine, he thinks, almost deliriously, they’re bound to crash. But where? Where can they go?”
As Guy tenderly trails the fantasy family into the future, a real drama unfolds on the Lara, the adjacent yacht where lovely Marta and her beguiling college-age daughter, Rhona, are grieving the recent death of Howard, Marta’s husband and Rhona’s father. At one point, Guy dives into the night cold sea to save Rhona from drowning. He seems romantically drawn to both mother and daughter.
Page is at his best evoking place, whether it is the old-fashioned décor of the Flood or the welcoming, foreboding sea itself. We hear the cry of gulls, peer at the glassy water and smell the rising vegetable stink of the estuary. Setting is significant in Guy’s experience of his imaginary expedition. “Georgia has surprised him, it’s so wooded . . . with a smell of dampness and soil which felt comforting and old, like the smell of an overgrown garden.”
Eventually, the two journeys converge. “Even the American hire car has changed, adopting the shed-like air of the wheelhouse, along with the broken-backed feel it gives him after a day of driving. Sometimes, writing about it, when he imagines a glance into the rear-view mirror, he doesn’t see America with all its lushness and roadside signage, but he sees the North Sea instead, scraped bare and lifeless, stretching away endlessly.”
While serious tensions develop between Guy and Judy in the diary, the drama on the neighboring Lara escalates. Marta and Rhona bicker and struggle to find their lives beyond mourning. Why has the talented younger woman dropped out of art school? Is Rhona drinking too much? Is Marta overbearing? Was it a good decision to leave home and live on Howard’s boat so soon after his death?
Still Guy’s journal consumes most of his attention. He likes meditating on the process of writing — penmanship, research, compulsion, writer’s block, epiphany. “He writes ‘Judy’, ‘Freya’, ‘the Flood.’ Familiar words with familiar shapes so overlaid with meaning they appear, in this instant, impenetrable. The J of Judy, still an optimistic letter to him, despite all that’s passed. The y of Freya, still looping at speed below the line, still giddy — Freya’s y, the one she could write haltingly, had always been capitalized, two strikes of the pen . . . Then he tries something: ‘Marta’ and ‘Rhona’. It feels strange. Marta’s name is oddly comforting, he likes it, whereas Rhona’s name seems full of unease. . . . His diary is beginning to consume him.”
Gradually, Guy and Marta are drawn together. “Something very strange had occurred: for the first time in five years Guy had not wanted to be alone any more. Just a little move to one side and she could be there, with him, both of their absences with new life to fill them. The thought had arrived with such a force he had been shocked by it.”
Page has created sympathetic characters, imbued them with an orchestra of emotions and placed them in vivid surroundings. But his narrative strategy becomes overly determinate, a self-conscious maze. Among his more melodramatic notes is a recurring drop of water or tear drop, which dampens the book from the first page to the last.
Eventually Guy ventures into magically realist seas, reuniting with Freya and stumbling into insight. His diary takes a startling new direction. The climax is open-ended. Freedom or oblivion? Judy and Marta meet face to face in mysterious circumstances. As the women move forward into the provocative unknown, so do readers.
Novelist Valerie Miner teaches at Stanford University. She can be reached through her website at www.valerieminer.com.