“Yet when she comes to earth she comes to seek for that without which her beauty will be forever cold, cold and chill as the surge of the salt, salt sea.” — Mary MacGregor in her telling of “Undine.”
Samantha Hunt’s dark, yet often whimsical, 2004 novel “The Seas” draws on the classic mythology of mermaids and mortals. The alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1521) theorized that Ondines were elemental water nymphs. According to legends, Ondines (or Undines) had no souls unless they married mortal men. Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué drew upon these legends in his highly popular German novel “Undine” (1811) as did Hans Christian Anderson in his classic “The Little Mermaid” (1837).
In “The Seas,” a nineteen-year-old protagonist whose name we never know is convinced to a certainty that she is a mermaid because her father told her so before he disappeared at sea years ago. She falls in love with a shell-shocked veteran almost twice her age who drinks and hides from his war experiences. Jude, however, is the only person in this despairing, northern coastal fishing and tourist town who cares for her. Like everyone else in town, Jude and the prospective mermaid are trapped in a life where alcoholism, boredom and a bit of fishing are the primary pursuits.
As the prologue explains, “If you were to try to leave, people who have known you since the day you were born would recognize your car and see you leaving. They would wonder where you were going and they would wave with two fingers off the steering wheel, a wave that might seem like a stop sign or a warning to someone trying to forget this very small town. It would be much easier to stay.”
She has few social skills, is viewed as deeply disturbed, if not retarded, by everyone else in town including her own mother who waits, and will probably always be waiting, for the return of her husband. Our young protagonist, who narrates her own story and–it appears–believes that we (as readers) are understanding and humane enough to be taken into her confidence, knows the mermaid legends. She fears her love will end up killing Jude.
“The Seas” is awash with water, with bleak satire and bleaker images. The writing is lyrical and precise, blending reality and fable in a way that blurs the littoral zone where the sea and the land meet, where reality and fairytale collide, where sanity and obsession become twisted together. If “The Seas” has failings–other than being darker than we can bear–it’s the occasional overly robust presentation of the author’s and/or the main character’s anti-war and society-without-pity themes.
Our narrator wants to return to the sea. Perhaps she does. Perhaps she dies. Perhaps she loses the last vestiges of her cold and chill sanity in exchange for all that she loves.
Coming April 22 – “On Writing as Entertainment,” a guest post by Lauren E. Harvey, author of “Imperfect”