From the Back Cover:
“Down to a Sunless Sea plunges the reader into uncomfortable situations and into the minds of troubled characters. Each selection is a different reading experience–poetic, journalistic, nostalgic, wryly humorous, and even macabre. An award-winning essayist and historical novelist, Mathias B. Freese brings the weight of his twenty-five years as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist into play as he demonstrates a vivid understanding of–and compassion toward–the deviant and damaged.”
I knew going into this book that the material is on the darkish side–maybe even a little depressing. What I wasn’t prepared for was how uncomfortable some of the stories would make me feel. Re-reading the blurb from the back of the book made me think that this was done on purpose–but I’m not sure for what purpose. The stories range from all different topics–from friendships, parent-child relationships, Holocaust survivor, troubled student, obsessive worrier–topics that in some way or another we can find a little bit of ourselves in.
In the collection there are 15 stories, mostly very short in length. One of the difficulties that I often have with short stories is that the author does not have room to develop the characters fully, but that isn’t the case with these stories. Focused more on the character than the plot (you know I love that!), even in the shortest of the stories, we get a really intimate look into the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Yes, many of them are uncomfortable–ranging from suicide to inadequacy to rage to lunacy, etc etc, but they all leave the reader with something to think about and muse over.
So you’re thinking: You love character-driven books, Trish. What’s with the rating? First, I think it is worth mentioning that this is a work of literature. There is something very poetic about Freese’s writing style. But on the other hand, the language often felt stuffy and unnecessarily complex. I feel like a philistine as Stephen Dedalus would surely call me (although I never really liked Joyce anyway), but I found myself re-reading sentences and passages to figure out exactly what Freese was trying to say. For instance:
“One of padded felt and thick, lush carpeting, Clare had a voice that made you attend. It was deeply textured, had a surface gravity to it that was entirely alluring, irresistible. It was a resilient voice; it could incorporate when pressured only to rise once more, project. It was Clare’s one attribute, and not unattractive in a svelte woman so vigorous in her opinions. One attended to her because of that voice. Neither seductive nor sensuous, it had a convincing nature, very much there, as if an original flow of magma, now firm and fundamental” (129).
Yes, it is such poetic writing, but by the end of the paragraph, I am lost. I read it again and finally figure out what exactly the author is getting at. Nearly every paragraph in the book is equally rich, and given the wide cast of characters, the language began to feel stilted and unauthentic. Philistine? Maybe–especially given the fact that so many others have truly enjoyed this slim collection. I think poetry lovers, especially, would appreciate this one. Not recommended to those looking for a light read.