Susanna Daniel does something very different in Sea Creatures, a novel set in Miami, Florida. She has written a great story about love, marriage, family, death, art, weather and the sea and the disabling effects of sleep disorders and selective mutism. Reading this combination of words, I wonder how she did it. Sea Creatures is a very well-written novel. Georgia and Graham and their young son Frankie have returned to the area after a scandal involving Graham’s parasomnia, a severe wakefulness and sleep-walking condition which has caused three-year-old Frankie to stop talking. They buy a houseboat and anchor it off Georgia’s father’s dock. The story begins and unfolds during the summer of 1992.
A great deal of the plot takes place in Stiltsville, a community of about a dozen stilt homes, built on sand flats about a mile offshore. These homes actually exist and the author spent many of her own childhood in her family’s stilt house. Her first novel is actually titled Stiltsville and is the winner of the BEN/Binhgam prize for outstanding debut work published in 2010.
Daniel has a very talented way of telling a story. We get to know her characters through Georgia’s perspective and watch as her marriage founders. Georgia’s job as an errand-runner for sixty-one-year-old Charlie Hicks, a stilt house hermit, turns into something quite different for Georgia and Frankie. And while Graham is on an extended assignment studying hurricanes, her life begins to change in unlikely ways.
The characters are so different; you might want to call them quirky. But they aren’t and their appeal grows as the plot develops. In addition to my long list of what this story is about, Daniel has created thematic layers, in which the main characters try to make meaning out of loss. Did they act quickly enough and do enough at the important hour? Did they say the right things? Did they treat the family who was left fairly? When regret surfaces, what do they do? She also shows the impact of reckless behavior and makes you wonder why certain people are drawn to these risks. And how much risk is too much – where do you draw the line? Daniel also shows how the powerful forces of nature and Hurricane Andrew can change everything.
Her characters also have that real quality of not being one hundred percent likable. Georgia is a loving mother, but she makes foolish choices. Charlie has a wonderful way of communicating, but has behaved badly. Georgia’s father Harvey seems to retreat during crucial times, but redeems himself at the end. And Graham – he’s so troubled, but you want to help him, even when Georgia doesn’t.
The plot develops nicely. Seemingly unimportant events and facts, mentioned throughout, help tie characters and events together. Daniel’s descriptions of the water, boats and Stiltsville are easy to imagine and make the story flow.
There’s a lot to think about in Sea Creatures, an easy, but intelligent read. Daniel is currently at work on her third novel. Meantime I think I’ll be checking out Stiltsville!
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