If you’ve been following this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction, it probably won’t have escaped your attention that the shortlist was announced on Tuesday (following the earlier announcement of the longlist last month). I don’t necessarily have any plans to read all of the books on either list, but am picking out the ones that sound appealing or that I can get hold of easily. The Seas is one of the longlisted titles that didn’t make the shortlist. This book (which was Samantha Hunt’s first) was originally published in 2004, but became eligible for the Orange Prize after being published in the UK last year.
Ever since she was a little girl and her father told her she was a mermaid, the unnamed narrator of The Seas has felt different from everyone else in her town. Now, at the age of nineteen there are two main influences on her life: one is her love for Jude, an older man who has recently returned from fighting in Iraq. The other is the lonely, oppressive atmosphere of the town itself – a town so far north ‘the highway only goes south’ – and the sea that surrounds it.
There is a lot of this kind of sadness here. It slips in like the fog at night. The fog that creeps out of the ocean to survey the land that one day she thinks will eventually be hers.
This is not the type of book I usually choose to read, but sometimes it’s good to take a risk and try something a bit different. And The Seas is certainly different! As well as being a strange and unusual novel, it’s also a surprisingly short one. In just 200 pages, Samantha Hunt manages to cover a number of topics such as the Iraq War, post traumatic stress disorder and mermaid mythology – as well as creating some interesting minor characters, including the narrator’s grandfather, a retired typesetter who is busy working on a new dictionary – yet I never felt that the author had tried to pack too much into too few pages, which proves that sometimes a book doesn’t have to be long in order to say everything it needs to say.
Although there didn’t seem to be much of a plot and I wasn’t sure where everything was leading, I enjoyed the first half of the book and was pulled into the narrative by the quality of the beautiful, dreamlike prose, filled with wonderful ocean imagery. It wasn’t enough to hold my attention right to the final page, though, and towards the end of the book I started to lose interest. Sadly there were too many things about this book that didn’t quite work for me, but overall I thought it was an impressive debut novel.