Susanna Daniel’s new novel Sea Creatures (Harper) is a novel about family, about parenthood, and about disasters small and large. The book doesn't depend on a strong plot to shepherd you through its pages, yet as you read, that's of little concern; you just want to keep going.
The story opens as narrator Georgia Quilian, her husband Graham, and their three-year-old son Frankie move from their home near Chicago to Georgia’s hometown of Miami, Fla. Despite Georgia’s failed small business, Graham’s lost shot at tenure at Northwestern, Frankie’s refusal to speak, and both Graham and Georgia’s sleep disorders, the family is ready to try to start over.
Once settled in their new houseboat tethered behind Georgia’s parents’ house, however, their lives don’t go quite as planned. Graham is working almost constantly while Georgia cares for Frankie and runs errands for a hermit living in Stiltsville, a community of houses sitting on stilts out in the bay. As the story unfolds, the fragile family must confront everything from their own insecurities to the devastating power of a hurricane. As Georgia herself observes, “The course of a life will shift — really shift — many times….But rarely will there be a shift you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm. Rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open.” This story is — in some ways literally — that calm before the storm.
The novel very deftly and expertly covers a lot of ground. The Miami setting leaps off the page, and title is well chosen; the prose sometimes conjures a feeling like being underwater, floating somewhere in the warm, inviting ocean amidst the “soft blue glow” of the “moonshine off the water.” Nuances of language allow the prose to be understated, yet the reader to feel fully present.
The true feat of the novel, however, is how full and well-rounded the main character is. Every time I feel like I have a full picture of Georgia, Daniel will reveal another detail, another memory or idle thought, and the picture of Georgia becomes that much more complete, more real. Creating fully developed characters is, of course, a requirement for any good book, but it is rare to get a character who seems to approach the complexity of a real person in the way that Georgia does. Instead of letting a few broad brushstrokes define her character and then filling them in mostly through the choices she makes, Daniel is continuously giving Georgia more depth.
For instance, her matter-of-factly complicated relationship with her parents: Georgia fiercely loves her late mother and fondly remembers her impulsive streak and charm, the way Georgia's father's long absences would both wear on her and spark little rebellions. Yet she is also aware that her father's new wife is probably "a better match for him," that her father was a good husband and a good father. All of her difficult-to-reconcile opinions about her parents could serve as the central focus of their own novel, but instead they are merely incidental to Georgia's larger story, a testimony to how complete she seems to be.
From her memories of her childhood to her fluctuating view of her present circumstances, from her meditations on her life to her observations about her husband, Georgia seems to have an actual life’s worth of feelings and experiences to shape her outlook. And to top it off, she is also subtly but unquestionably self-aware. She worries about what sort of mother she is, what sort of daughter she was. When she visits the house of an old friend she thinks about how she "wished [she] were the type of person who presided over this kind casual, friendly, open home," but she knows that she isn't. She is also ignorant of herself exactly as real individuals are; sometimes she does things, like using sign language without speaking aloud to her mute but hearing son, and she isn't sure exactly why. She is a realistic character in the fullest sense of the word.
Sea Creatures is a beautiful book: Well crafted, and delightful to read, with an almost magical quality that somehow gives it the feel of Miami with very little physical description. It’s engrossing, highly memorable, and features one of the most fully fleshed-out characters I’ve encountered in a long time.