The Seas, Samantha Hunt’s urgently real and magically unreal reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” sinks an anchor into the soul of its lost young protagonist. It is a breathy, wonderful holler of a novel, deeply lodged in the ocean’s merciless blue.
The hard-bitten inhabitants who live in Hunt’s contemporary coastal hamlet aren’t sure what to make of a 19-year-old girl (we never learn her name) who believes she is a mermaid. A loner whose father walked into the ocean 11 years earlier, she possesses a kind of “super vision” that makes inanimate objects come to life. She communicates with mold and wrestles a rock, which she takes for King Neptune, into the sea (“I push so hard that the vertebrae in his back cut me”). The lost father is the girl’s Moby Dick, a big, white love that eludes her every grasp. She’s certain of his return when she sees wet footprints in her attic, and deciphers a “mayday” message etched into a bruise on her back. Is she delusional, or just extremely imaginative? The question lurks throughout the story, which culminates in a series of harrowing water scenes, including one in which she tests her mermaid’s power by trying to “breathe water into” her lungs while in the bathtub.
Central to the girl’s story is Jude, a 33-year-old veteran of the first Gulf war. In her mind, this hard-drinking, womanizing sailor is her prince, her mortal. In keeping with the mermaid’s tale, if he doesn’t return her love, he will have to die. Her romantic infatuation often unspools into lovely images: “I’d like to hold my finger below his nostrils for a long time until it is damp from his exhalations. Then I’d put the finger in my mouth and drink Jude’s breath.”
Hunt’s prose is kaleidoscopic, infused with typographical games—messages written backward, dictionary entries, single-sentence pages. The book’s vivid language is reminiscent of Shelley Jackson’s Melancholy of Anatomy, but its existential heart belongs to Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes, in which the protagonist, trapped by sand, must endlessly sweep—for here Samantha Hunt’s heroine, straitjacketed by the sea, must swim forever in its tides, wading and waiting.