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Sea Creatures, by Susanna Daniel

Reviewed by Susan Day
Harper, 320 pages, $24.99

Georgia Quillian’s family seems to cope well enough with its quirks. Three-year-old Frankie inexplicably stopped talking after he turned two. Her husband Graham suffers from parasomnia, which presents itself as nocturnal roamings. A disturbing and embarrassingly public roaming episode prompts the road trip that unfolds in the first few pages of Sea Creatures, as the Quillian family moves from Round Lake, Illinois, to Coral Gables, Florida.

Like Sea Creatures author Susanna Daniel, protagonist Georgia Quillian grew up in Florida. Upon her return, Georgia and her family make their “home” in a boat docked at the house of her father and step-mother Lidia. While Graham delves into his promising, but temporary, academic fellowship, Georgia nurses the failure of her own consulting business. Trying to forget the troubling wake behind them, the Quillians settle into a life of relative safety and stability. 

While her husband works, Georgia dotes on her son, signing for communication. She is an anxious and protective mother, yet Georgia and Frankie’s navigation of the world using American Sign Language is a sweet portrait of motherhood. During her aimless days Georgia reflects on her own mother, who died five years earlier, before Frankie was born. Georgia’s love for her mother is palpable, yet proscribed by an adult awareness of her mother’s faults and the difficulties of her parents’ marriage. The telling of these memories is both intimate and frank.

Georgia thinks how the loss of her mother was an “empty vessel that consumed so much space, the thunderous void. I didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits or even angels, though I’d always loved the idea of these things and wished I could believe—but how else to define the bellowing, chest-beating presence of absence?”

Georgia’s stepmother Lidia nudges her toward a job as a personal assistant to an eccentric hermit named Charlie Hicks. Despite her disdain at taking a job she feels is beneath her and some initial wariness about the location—the collection of rickety homes supported on pilings in the middle of Biscayne Bay known as Stiltsville—she begins working for Hicks. Not long after, Graham pursues an opportunity on a research vessel in Hurricane Alley that will take him out of touch with his family for many weeks.

Hicks turns out to be a talented artist with his own troubled past, and a friendship unfolds between him and Georgia and Frankie at the undemanding pace of a summer-long beach vacation. Their cautious, yet probing conversations reveal long hidden details about Georgia’s life; their adventures with Frankie are life-changing. The friendship brings about jubilation and devastation as the three face metaphorical and quite real storms.

Most of Sea Creatures is set on or adjacent to water: the Coral Gables canal way, the Dry Tortugas, and Biscayne Bay and Stiltsville (the setting of Daniels’ first novel by the same name). These places are portrayed as peripheral, even magical, liberated from the urban demands of inland life.

While a few real ocean dwellers make notable appearances, caught and struggling against human-made snares, the sea creatures we encounter are largely mythic creations of the characters’ making. Imagined and re-imagined, they represent stories of beauty or terror or wonder as needed—to fill “the thunderous void” of absence—by the strange humans who make their home in a world where they are not equipped to survive.

Sea Creatures is an exploration of the fragile structures people build for solace, protection, and desire, and the ways in which these structures must weather the storms of consequence and tragedy. The novel could easily dwell in regret and guilt; the grownups all have reason enough. Yet Sea Creatures is more interested in the deep and complex connections of family as well as the ways in which we bear the returning tide of loss. 

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Susan Day started as communications coordinator at the UW–Madison Arboretum in July, 2013, after over six years as editor at the Chazen Museum of Art.

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