Joan Sullivan: Awash in ‘The Luminous Sea’

The Luminous Sea

By Melissa Barbeau

Breakwater Books

237 pages  $19.95

Vivienne grew up around boats and as a biology grad student she studies the sea, but still her summer assignment in Damson Bay has her feeling like a fish out of water. Supervised by the snappish, demanding Colleen, (who’s overseen in turn by Dr. John Isaiah, who will prove a self-involved, disturbing presence), Vivienne diligently gathers samples and data, even as her St. John’s background sets her apart.


Like their makeshift lab, for example. “The word had tripped Vivienne up at first, store. She had stepped out of the truck looking for a converted convenience store — a Susie’s Groceteria or a Glenda’s Superette. Thomas had laughed and said, ‘That’s a townie for you.’ And explained that you brought eggs and beer at the shop and kept your lawn mower and your fishing gear in a store.”

It’s not that people are rude. They call her maid, they like to chat. But they also mind everyone’s business. “Tilt the salt shaker over on the kitchen table and the next morning someone in line at the post office will ask you if you remembered to throw a pinch over your left shoulder.” It’s not escaping anyone’s eyes then that Colleen has started collecting a married man, Bradley, on her early morning runs. And he just after convincing his wife, Tama, to relocate home from Paris and open a café.

The magic realism of Melissa Barbeau’s debut novel may remind readers of Michael Crummey’s Galore, and she belongs in such company.

The science team are in Damson Bay to investigate ongoing environmental changes. Part of Vivienne’s research is conducted via Jam Visits — she takes tea with one of the locals, presenting a gift of one of Tama’s infused specialities. Vivienne asks about new species, weather patterns, ice formations. But she feels she might not be posing the right queries.

When asking Thomas’s father, Clem, what differences he’s noticed, he (first noting that he’s an electrician, not a fisherman), answers: “It’s a funny thing to say but the garbage has changed. That’s what I’ve noticed. People always threw things in the water, the end of the pier was the closest thing we had to a garbage dump, but it wasn’t permanent. If the whole Bay had picked up and gone, in a couple of decades there would have been hardly a trace of us. Broken bottles transformed into sea glass. Boats rotted into the grass, ropes disintegrated in the water. Even an engine block would have rusted away given enough time. Now you have all this plastic everywhere and it’s getting harder and harder to disappear us.”

It appears Thomas comes by his own philosophical streak honestly. When Vivienne asks him what’s the strangest thing he’s seen in the ocean, like perhaps “a sea monster,” he replies: “What are we talking about here? One of those deep-sea fishes they pull up sometimes on the trawlers? One of those blind fish with lures that light up dangling from their skulls? One of those goblin things that guy in Russia is always posting on Instagram? … You know, in their world those goblins are perfect.”

And he relates a lovely story. “The strangest thing I ever saw out on the water was a canary. A little yellow canary landed right on the prow of the dory. I don’t know if she escaped from a cage here on the island somewhere, St. John’s or someplace, or blew in from wherever it is canaries come from. But she landed there happy as a lark, right pleased with herself I think, and sang away.”

Vivienne (whose own name means alive) has her own reason for pursuing this line of questioning. For she has found something in the ocean, something unusual and fierce, unearthly and compelling. It’s an animal — Vivienne has the bite marks to prove it — but it’s also sentient. To Colleen and Isaiah the creature means renown, awards, respect, and funding. But to Vivienne the “research” looks more and more like torture, and it’s getting hard to spot the real monsters.

The magic realism of Melissa Barbeau’s debut novel may remind readers of Michael Crummey’s Galore, and she belongs in such company. Her writing is alive with wit and description. “Vivienne feels as though her surface self, the self that goes about the world, is a weatherman sending live reports to her subconscious;” “Sun pennies dapple the water;“ “Her heart pounds. It has accelerated from a quiet adagio to a rabbit presto in a matter of seconds;” “Bradley stands frozen, as if he is a statue of a waiter. As if he’s acting out waiter in a game of charades, pen poised over pad, writing down nothing.” And all the while the stakes are rising to a high ante criss-cross of myth and murder.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.


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