Sea Creatures, by Susanna Daniel
314 pages (advanced readers copy)
“When I put my face in the water, I saw a massive iron propeller, each blade sheathed in toothy barnacles. There had been a ship here after all. I circled it. The act of snorkeling, to me, was like standing in a pitch-black room where you sense you are not alone, then lighting a match. It’s a pleasure, certainly, to see up close what is shrouded from land, the busy citizenry of the sea – but it’s also chilling. With the mask on, I had the feeling of wearing blinders, and each turn of my head could reveal something that had come forward from the deep, like this menacing piece of metalwork, its fat blades so stagnant that it seemed they might burst into motion if I continued to watch them. The rules of reality didn’t seem to apply.” (pg. 124, from the advanced readers copy)
Susanna Daniel’s sophomore novel Sea Creatures is not really about snorkeling or ancient shipwrecks.
Yet this passage above – referencing a snorkeling trip that her narrator Georgia takes with her husband Graham – is so very symbolic of the deeply buried and unspoken issues in their marriage. If you read between the lines, it becomes literary sea glass as Ms. Daniel subtly and quietly unfolds the themes haunting her characters (and, soon, her reader).
After Graham loses his tenured position at Northwestern, the couple and their toddler son Frankie move back to Georgia’s hometown in South Florida. There, they begin a new life aboard their houseboat with extended family nearby and a new research assignment at sea for Graham.
But even in new places, unresolved issues have a way of refusing to stay buried. What we couldn’t see before sometimes has a way of surfacing in new surroundings.
Because of severe parasomnia, Graham sleeps with one arm cuffed to the wall. (The National Sleep Foundation describes parasomnia as “all the abnormal things that can happen to people while they sleep, apart from sleep apnea. Some examples are sleep-related eating disorder, sleepwalking, night terrors, sleep paralysis, REM sleep behavior disorder, and sleep aggression.) This condition obviously alters Graham and Georgia’s family, not to mention their relationship; early on in the novel, we learn that it is the reason for Graham losing tenure at Northwestern and Georgia losing her business.
Aside from some trust issues, the couple is also struggling to understand why their three year old son Frankie isn’t talking anymore. (Because the novel is set in the early 1990s, playing doctor with Google or soliciting one’s Facebook friends for their parenting advice wasn’t as commonplace as it is now.) Georgia dedicates her days (her life, really) to teaching Frankie sign language and caring for him. She’s a bit of a helicopter parent (“When I put my face in the water, I saw a massive iron propeller, each blade sheathed in toothy barnacles”) but because of living on the water and Graham’s parasomnia, her protectiveness is easy to understand. She’s an incredibly relatable and sympathetic character: still grieving the loss of her mother several years after her death, struggling to make sense of these separate mysterious afflictions taking hold of her husband and son, and being adrift in her hometown without the identity of her business or the traditional ideals of motherhood and spouse to guide her.
At the suggestion of her stepmother, Georgia takes a part-time job assisting a reclusive artist named Charlie, who lives – literally – in the middle of the sea amidst a collection of stilt homes. (If this sounds familiar, it is. Ms. Daniel revisits the terrain of her first novel, Stiltsville here.)
“It’s a pleasure, certainly, to see up close what is shrouded from land, the busy citizenry of the sea – but it’s also chilling.” (pg. 124, advanced reader’s copy)
Away from Graham (and with professional help), Georgia learns the cause of Frankie’s selective mutism and realizes that she needs to make some life-changing decisions that will impact every single person in her life.
“With the mask on, I had the feeling of wearing blinders, and each turn of my head could reveal something that had come forward from the deep ….” (pg. 124, advanced reader’s copy)
Among the reasons that Sea Creatures is such a gripping story is because we know it was a real place. According to Susanna Daniel’s website, “[b]oth of Susanna’s novels, Stiltsville and Sea Creatures, are partially set at Stiltsville, a collection of wood homes perched on pilings one mile south of Cape Florida, in the middle of Biscayne Bay. Susanna Daniel grew up spending weekends at her family’s stilthouse….”
That knowledge helps solidify a sense of place, yes, but Ms. Daniel already has that covered. Her talent for description allow her to render landscapes and characters in such vivid detail that they feel as real to us as our own home and reflection.
There’s much more that I feel I could say (this would be a great book club novel!) but I need to be careful of not revealing spoilers. To be sure, Sea Creatures – like life – takes some predictable turns. There were also other plot twists that kept me guessing and ultimately surprised me. In the end, Sea Creatures more than skillfully stayed on course, with Ms. Daniel delivering an emotionally engrossing read.
Thank you very much to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. I was provided with a copy of Sea Creatures in exchange for my honest review. I did not receive any additional compensation for this post.
My heartfelt apologies to Trish Collins of TLC Book Tours and Susanna Daniel for being a few days late with this review.
For more information about Susanna Daniel, her other books, and how to connect with her, visit her website at www.susannadaniel.com