Oct 10, 2008

Down to a Sunless Sea

by Mathias B. Freese

I've seen many reviews of this book around the blogs lately, but it was this one at Educating Petunia that finally made me interested in reading it. Shortly after I left a comment there, the author himself offered me a copy, which I accepted. Down to a Sunless Sea is a slender volume containing fifteen short vignettes about troubled characters. Each one is a person with an aberration, be it mental, physical or psychological. I would have enjoyed this book more had I felt able to comprehend the stories. But there were too many which I could not follow, the narrative switching viewpoints or tenses too often in its few pages, the descriptions giving me no clear idea what was going on. Many are simply a character's inner monologue, describing his circumstances or feelings. Events are circumscribed by memories. Here I'll just mention those I found more readable, or which I felt spoke to me:

"I'll Make It, I Think"- a young man with cerebral palsy describes his physical handicaps and the frustrations they cause him. He just wants to be accepted as normal, yet no one can see past the differences of his body.

"Nicholas"- a student who always does poorly defends his position, scoffing at education and criticizing his teacher with faulty grammar, crude language and slang.

"Unanswerable"- a boy goes to the beach with his family. Teaching him to swim, his father throws him into the water and leaves him there to struggle out by himself. The incident taints his life forever, especially how he perceives his father's motives.

"Little Errands" - trying to do a few simple errands, a man gets hung up on constantly worrying about whether or not he mailed some letters properly or remembered to turn off the radio in his car. Most poignant is the misunderstanding all this causes between himself and a neighbor.

"Echo" - the description of a man who feels himself unable to ever get close to another person, because of a rejection in his childhood. Always pushing his friends away, preferring his solitude.

"Mortise and Tenon"- viewing an exhibition of Klimt in an art museum, the son admires the picture frames, while his mother harshly criticizes the art. She even criticizes the objects he likes in the gift shop. While I was fascinated by how this boy saw and described spaces, what the last sentence suggested about him chilled me.

"For a While, Here, in This Moment" - this one seemed to be describing the mind of someone who was paralyzed. It had the most interesting metaphors, the language bringing alive such unique and vivid images that I kept rereading the phrases, to roll them through my mind.

To me, "Alabaster" was the most moving of all the stories. A little boy eavesdrops on an old woman and her daughter, when they sit on a public bench. One day the daughter leaves and the boy sits uneasily while the old woman speaks to him. He finds her frightening, but to her his company is a comfort. It soon becomes apparent to the reader what loss and trauma this woman has suffered...

All of the stories here are unsettling, some sad and others just downright disturbing. This is a book that I feel I probably ought to approach again, to see if I can understand it better (much like Animal Crackers). But so much of it was unpleasant or frustrating to read, that I don't know if I'll ever feel inclined to do so.

Rating: 2/5                134 pages, 2007

More opinions at:
Book Chase
Educating Petunia
Trish's Reading Nook
Bookfoolery and Babble
Musings of a Bookish Kitty


  1. It's a hard read, no doubt about it.

  2. It's hard to adequately review a collection of stories (as opposed to a novel), but I think you did a very nice job of it! It's piqued my interest and I'll be keeping my eyes open for this book. Thanks!


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