In The Language of the Sea, Leo Kemp is now a father of one after losing his son to the sea. He is consequently a mediocre husband in a failing marriage. After losing his job as a marine biology professor, due to his failure to follow the rules and speaking out against the company for which he worked, he decides to further rebel by taking his class out on one last fieldtrip to Monomy Island to observe a rookery of seals. An unexpected storm sweeps him overboard and Leo, presumed dead, spends his days living amongst the seals and hiding from civilization. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter deal with his loss. His wife, after his return near the end of the book, refuses to speak of his adventure. The story ultimately ends, somewhat abruptly, with a slight, seemingly unexpected twist.
The story borrows small elements from Selkie tales of old Scottish, Irish and Icelandic (among others) folklore. While the myths vary slightly, generally, Selkies are seals who shed their skin to become human, or in Welsh the opposite, humans become seals as this novel suggests. Leo Kemp doesn’t necessarily become a seal, but he tends to believe that he best belongs amongst the seals. Selkies are generally depicted as the souls of drowned people. McManus conjures the myth, but doesn’t include all of the elements. Commonly, Selkie stories are romantic tragedies. While The Language of the Sea illustrates tragedy (loss of son, failing marriage), I can’t say it would fall into the genre of a romantic tragedy. Nor will you see Leo’s wife shed seven tears into the sea to call her husband home.
The novel is narrated by a cast of characters including Leo, his wife, his best friend and an unknown narrator. It would seem that the structure is purposefully distant, but it makes it difficult at times to engage with the story and the characters. If you muddle through, there are gems to be found. The suspension of belief required at times takes patience, but the end result is a provocative story of family, perception and the unknown of the ocean. The descriptions of the landscape, sea life and nature are thought provoking and will stay with you well after you reach the end. Overall, the book was a good read and a bit different than you might expect.
Part-time fiction writer, Alisha Churbe lives in Portland, Oregon. In the rare instances when you can pry her away from books, Alisha can be found travelling in foreign countries, cooking, or hiking with her husband Michael and dog Zach.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Thomas Dunne Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.