Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2019

The Sea and Us, by Catherine de Saint Phalle

Catherine de Saint Phalle is the author of five novels published in France, and in Australia, a novel called On Brunswick Ground  (2015) and a memoir titled Poum & Alexandre (shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2017).  Her new book The Sea and Us (2019) is also published by Transit Lounge, in a beautiful hardback edition with gorgeous Greek Island blue boards and cover art by John Durham for Design by Committee. I mention this because it’s a pleasing sign of confidence in the book-as-object when publishers bring out titles in hardback; I think we have moved on from those depressing forecasts that the book was dead.

Anyway, the book has those Greek Island blue boards is because ‘The Sea and Us’ is the name of the fish-and-chip shop in Brunswick where a young man called Harold comes to live after a failed relationship in Seoul.  The reasons for the breakup are not revealed until later in the novel, but it’s clear that he is in a mess, psychologically.  He comes across Verity’s room for rent upstairs via Gumtree, and he takes it even though, in marked contrast to the pristine shop downstairs, it’s filthy.  And even though he’s listless and at a bit of a loose end, the reader knows he is a man of some initiative because he transforms his grotty room with elbow grease and whitewash.  Not paint, because it’s whitewash that his mother always used, and though they’ve been estranged for a very long time, he still hears her voice in his head.

A loose community that’s representative of multicultural Melbourne begins to form.  Harold is of Czech heritage and Verity is Irish.  In the charity shop, Harold meets Ben, who’s a Kiwi, when he offers to help Ben lug the bed and mattress back to Verity’s.  An Asian woman with the rigid eccentricity of an English duchess runs the pottery with Syn, who’s Nordic.  Harold signs up there because he longs to make pots, the way he did in Seoul.  This is the natural diversity of our city where people come together from all over the world to form new friendships and find a sense of belonging amid familiar suburban landmarks: a Bunnings, a Brotherhood of St Lawrence shop, and The Quarry Hotel.

Making pots is a consolation, but it comes with memories of betrayal in Seoul by his lover Ha-yoon and his teacher, the master potter Do-yun.

Flashbacks to Seoul also introduce a character called Maryann.  She’s a sex-worker, but Harold’s longstanding friendship with her is based on affection and a shared love of books.  She calls him Marlowe (and Philip, when she’s cross) after the character in Raymond Chandler’s noir fiction, and they emulate the dialogue of Chandler’s hard-boiled characters.  He looks out for her in case her clients are troublesome. but he’s not her pimp.  Leaving, as Harold has, leaves her vulnerable once again.

These estrangements accumulate.  Harold is estranged from his mother because of something she did when he was too young to interpret it without judgementalism; he is estranged from his Korean lover because he does not understand the complexities of her needs; and he is estranged from Maryann because she is collateral damage from his sudden departure. There are also barriers to forming new relationships in Melbourne: Verity isn’t ready to explain why she never goes upstairs, and although Harold is pleased to hear Ben call him ‘mate’ he’s hesitant to get closer because he doesn’t feel settled enough to belong.  Melbourne may have been Harold’s home once, but he’s a stranger to it now, and it takes time to settle.

The Sea and Us is a gentle book of redemption and belonging.  The motif of maritime debris recurs: the flotsam, jetsam, ligan and derelict that inhabit the ocean or lodge in the unconscious mind wash up or are recovered eventually.  Harold’s longing to ‘only connect’ leads to a sharing of long-repressed memories and tentative currents of redemption.

Author: Catherine de Saint Phalle
Title: The Sea and Us
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 185 pages
ISBN: 9781925760415
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: The Sea & Us and direct from Transit Lounge


Responses

  1. I can’t tell now whether I’ve read Poum and Alexandre or just lots of reviews, but I really like the sound of this one – very (inner) Melbourne.

    Like

    • LOL it gets like that, doesn’t it!

      Like


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