Safe from the Sea
I’ll grant that a plot can entertain without attention to setting, but it seems to me that the best stories—the ones that strike the reader as true and real and lived, the ones that draw you inside and make you forget you are interpreting words on a page—are the ones that establish an undeniable link between the characters and their natural and cultural settings. Some stories only make sense, can only be told, in a particular context; and this is not because they are less universal, but in fact because they are rendered more universal by virtue of their grounding in the topography, history, and spirit of one particular geographical context.
Take, for example, the story of Noah and his father Olaf in Peter Geye’s debut novel, Safe from the Sea. Citified Noah uncomfortably returns to northern Minnesota when his long-absent father, an ex-freighter captain, grudgingly admits that he is too ill to care for himself. Noah intends simply to force his father to a doctor, replenish the firewood pile, re-stock the tins of salmon and coffee, and get back to his marriage, which is foundering on the rocks of infertility. But in this ramshackle cabin on the sharp edge of winter and the vast shores of Lake Superior, Noah encounters his father’s tragic history. He knew the decades-old public story of the sinking of the Ragnarök, his father’s ore ship, but now in his father’s final days he gently pries from him the private hell of that experience and the devastating emotional consequences that had dictated Noah’s childhood. The time has come for Olaf to speak and for Noah to listen, and so they do, as the flames sputter in the woodstove, the ore industry rusts away in the harbor, and cancer finishes in Olaf’s body what the sea and the bottle started years ago.
It’s an intimate and believable account of a reconciliation between father and son, tender and deeply moving but not sentimental. Partly this is achieved by the restrained dialogue one would expect between two uneasy men. But a great deal of the credit also goes to the author’s use of setting, which reflects the characters’ internal struggles because it helped to create them in the first place. The empty maritime museum with the yellowed newspaper photos showing the frostbitten survivors of the Ragnarök. The huge fallen oak that Noah must dismember and cart back to the cabin, one backbreaking wheelbarrow-full at a time, to warm his father’s extremities and memories. The heavy snow deepening among the trees, prohibiting Noah’s flight and quieting his voice of judgment. The icy lake, which once nearly claimed his father and did claim his friends and is now, his father insists, his chosen resting place. A law office and brownstone in New York could tell a father-son story, but not this story—this one lives and breathes by its rope-burned calluses and six-foot snowdrifts and the icy depths of a life-giving and life-taking sea. Those elements of the setting are as much characters as Noah and Olaf and the long-gone mother and the grieving wife.
Safe from the Sea is not an action-driven plot but a slow realization. Like the flinty-spirited people of Minnesota, it is quiet but with a pulsing undercurrent of unspoken feeling. It will fold you in and call you to listen and deposit you on the lakeshore with a new perspective on where you came from and where you are going.
This is the third novel published by Unbridled Books that I’ve read, and I am very impressed with the quality of the novelists they are publishing, the care they put into designing their books, and the active marketing they do with both social and traditional media. A number of their books have been featured in the Indie Next List, which features recommendations by independent booksellers. This is a publisher—and an author—to watch.
This review is cross-posted at The Discarded Image.