The Luminous Sea
By Melissa Barbeau
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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs background sets her apart.
Like their makeshift lab, for example. ‚ÄúThe word had tripped Vivienne up at first, store. She had stepped out of the truck looking for a converted convenience store ‚ÄĒ a Susie‚Äôs Groceteria or a Glenda‚Äôs Superette. Thomas had laughed and said, ‚ÄėThat‚Äôs a townie for you.‚Äô And explained that you brought eggs and beer at the shop and kept your lawn mower and your fishing gear in a store.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs not that people are rude. They call her maid, they like to chat. But they also mind everyone‚Äôs business. ‚ÄúTilt 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.‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs not escaping anyone‚Äôs 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 caf√©.
The magic realism of Melissa Barbeau‚Äôs debut novel may remind readers of Michael Crummey‚Äôs Galore, and she belongs in such company.
The science team are in Damson Bay to investigate ongoing environmental changes. Part of Vivienne‚Äôs research is conducted via Jam Visits ‚ÄĒ she takes tea with one of the locals, presenting a gift of one of Tama‚Äôs 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‚Äôs father, Clem, what differences he‚Äôs noticed, he (first noting that he‚Äôs an electrician, not a fisherman), answers: ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a funny thing to say but the garbage has changed. That‚Äôs what I‚Äôve 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôs getting harder and harder to disappear us.‚ÄĚ
It appears Thomas comes by his own philosophical streak honestly. When Vivienne asks him what‚Äôs the strangest thing he‚Äôs seen in the ocean, like perhaps ‚Äúa sea monster,‚ÄĚ he replies: ‚ÄúWhat 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? ‚Ä¶ You know, in their world those goblins are perfect.‚ÄĚ
And he relates a lovely story. ‚ÄúThe 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‚Äôt know if she escaped from a cage here on the island somewhere, St. John‚Äôs 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.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs an animal ‚ÄĒ Vivienne has the bite marks to prove it ‚ÄĒ but it‚Äôs also sentient. To Colleen and Isaiah the creature means renown, awards, respect, and funding. But to Vivienne the ‚Äúresearch‚ÄĚ looks more and more like torture, and it‚Äôs getting hard to spot the real monsters.
The magic realism of Melissa Barbeau‚Äôs debut novel may remind readers of Michael Crummey‚Äôs Galore, and she belongs in such company. Her writing is alive with wit and description. ‚ÄúVivienne feels as though her surface self, the self that goes about the world, is a weatherman sending live reports to her subconscious;‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúSun pennies dapple the water;‚Äú ‚ÄúHer heart pounds. It has accelerated from a quiet adagio to a rabbit presto in a matter of seconds;‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúBradley stands frozen, as if he is a statue of a waiter. As if he‚Äôs acting out waiter in a game of charades, pen poised over pad, writing down nothing.‚ÄĚ 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.