Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (Harper Collins; 320 pages; $25.99).
When Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham’s sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia’s college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia’s mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.
When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she’s surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.
But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is uncovered, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.
Graham, Georgia, and their son Frankie moved to South Florida to escape their many troubles in Susanna Daniel’s new novel Sea Creatures, but their problems had a way of tagging along. Georgia, Daniel’s main character and sole narrator, was a protagonist I not only liked but with whom I sympathized and empathized. I put myself in her place and understood the great weight she carried on her thin shoulders. I absolutely hated Graham, Georgia’s husband, who suffered from parasomnia, a condition in which he experienced erratic sleep patterns. He sometimes sleepwalked. “Sleep was the yardstick by which all other fears were measured, and everything else dwarfed. It’s the stuff of horror films, sleep terror, but the sleep goblins of film are imaginary. Graham’s problems were real, and all the more alarming for their unpredictability.”
Despite having parasomnia, Graham scoffed at his son Frankie’s selective mutism. This, I must confess, was the ultimate of his transgressions for me. Graham seemed to want Frankie to be “normal,” when Graham himself had medical problems.
Daniel expertly underscored how parenthood can change a marriage. Georgia just could not understand her husband’s mindset, “Sometimes I thought that in becoming a parent, I’d morphed into an entirely different person, while he’d remained exactly the same person he’d always been.” As Daniel’s tale progressed, husband and wife only withdrew farther and farther away from each other.
Georgia and Frankie, though, grew even closer. Frankie stole my heart time and again in this novel. “Just as he’d started to speak words, he’d stopped…[The doctors] quizzed me about my marriage and about Graham and his parasomnia, which led me to understand that children in difficult homes sometimes go mute….” Frankie finally found his voice thanks to Charlie the hermit.
I loved the transformation in which Charlie’s character underwent. Like Frankie, he discovered a part of himself that had been closed off for years. Sea Creatures came to dazzling and vivid life whenever Georgia and Frankie visited Charlie in Stiltsville. Those passages just hummed with energy.
I could not help but hope that Georgia and Charlie would develop a lasting romance. Of course, I also hoped she would give Graham the boot. Everything comes to a shuddering climax as Hurricane Andrew approaches South Florida, lending a threatening, uncertain atmosphere to the story: “The course of a life will shift—really shift—many times over the years. But rarely will there be a shift that you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm, rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open.” Indeed, the hurricane heralded a new chapter for Daniel’s characters. For them, everything changed. Just as residents of South Florida cleaned up after the storm, the people in Daniel’s novel must pick up the pieces of their tattered and torn lives.
Thus, Daniel adeptly weaved together various conflicts throughout her narrative, cleverly moving from man against man to man against himself to man against nature. The plot of Sea Creatures expertly revolved around these struggles.
All in all, Daniel’s second book was an absorbing, lyrical journey. Sea Creatures left me spellbound, sleepless, speechless, and completely oblivious to the rest of the world.
He said, “Some people go to sea, and they drown.”