The Language of the Sea
by James MacManus
Release Date: May 10, 2011 (Reprint Edition)
2010 Thomas Dunne Books
Hardcover Edition; 304 Pages
Source: Review Copy from Erin McNichols
3.5 / 5 Stars
What happens when an ordinary man slips out of his life and into legend? Scientist Leo Kemp was always drawn to the sea and its creatures, even after a family tragedy shredded the peace he found there. His lifelong fascination and obsession with seals had brought him to Cape Cod, Massachusetts for a teaching position at the Coldharbor Institute for Marine Studies. Fired for his outspoken views, one last ordinary field trip with his students grows disastrous as he is thrown overboard.
Evoking the Celtic myth of the selkies – human women who transform into seals – MacManus weaves a story about the complicated relationships of a family enduring grief and the mysteries that lie beyond the perceived knowledge of science. THE LANGUAGE OF THE SEA challenges us to expand our understanding of nature even as it slips effortlessly between the marine environment off the shores of the Cape, the rivalries of academia and the fortitude of love that becomes an utterly unique portrait of hope and healing.
The Language of the Sea was a powerful novel that explored the realm of the ocean's underworld, a world with which I am largely unfamiliar in the greater scope of things. What this novel did for me, which I believe is one of the author's intentions, is to make you think more deeply about a world which, for the most part, is largely unexplored and largely ignored by the general population. I have lived my entire life by great bodies of water and I would be the first to admit I am ignorant of the effects of pollution, of fishing, of tourism, and so on, has really had on the bodies of water on which we are so dependent. This novel brought a lot of that home to me and realized that it was dangerous to ignore the warnings we have been given about our planet.
The novel focuses on marine biologist, Leo Kemp, and the effect his fanaticism with the sea and the seal population has on his family and on his job. When he is swept overboard during a freak storm, he begins to unravel mentally and joins the seal population in order to learn more about them. At the same time, in a series of flashbacks, we learn more about his family life and see the unraveling of his marriage and the love lost due in large part to his fanaticism. While I seriously understand Leo's fascination with the ocean and its draw, what I could not relate to was his self-isolation and his dream-world habitation as he enters the other world and lives with the seals. I just couldn't relate to that realm of self-absorption, the level where you could possibly leave everybody you love behind, and just forget about them, and compartmentalize them in such a way as to want to leave them forever. I definitely understand the draw of the ocean and the water, but the line drawn between reality and fantasy here was too far for me to cross. I admired Kemp, but I didn't understand him.
Mr. McManus writes with a strong, lyrical style that just draws you in and makes you feel part of the story; I could imagine myself swimming in the water, dealing with tides, currents, sharks, eels, and other assorted problems that came his way as if I was the one in the water. I could picture the way everything would look, as the author writes with feeling and emotion, evoking powerful thoughts and images. At one point, I almost wondered if the old folktale with the kelpies would actually happen, then spent time debating with myself whether I wanted it to happen or not. I felt for Kemp when he struggled against the establishment for which he worked, trying to make them see how important it was for scientists to really look at what they were studying, and not just take things for granted. It was something that really hit home for me, especially as I have not been paying as much attention to environmental issues as I should.
The novel is told from the perspectives of Sandy, Leo, Margot, and Buck, so we get a variety of views on the events that happened. Unfortunately, while I think this was done so that we understand and empathize with all of the characters and their stories, for me, it made them feel more distant and I couldn't always relate to them in the way that I think was intended. Despite this, there are definite moments of brilliance in this novel. If you are patient, and can deal with the definite aura of an indistinct line between reality and fantasy, then it is worth reading as it will open your mind and make you think about what is under the water. For example, I will never be able to think about sonar radars and sharks in the same way ever again; the effect of sonars on these animals is something I did not know and am saddened to learn that we are killing these animals.
The Language of the Sea had beautiful descriptions of the sea and its marine life, and the effects of pollution and humans on this environment will stay with me for a long time. While I couldn't quite connect with the characters, and had difficulty suspending belief in the way it was needed, I absolutely loved the ending, and the way it made me think about my environment. It is definitely well worth a look.