Melissa Barbeau is a founding member of the Port Authority Writing Group. She has been anthologized in Racket: New Writing Made in Newfoundland, The Cuffer Anthology, and Paragon. The Luminous Sea (2018, Breakwater Books) is her first book.I’m going to begin this review of The Luminous Sea, not by describing the story (that will come), but by describing the actual book, which is pretty much a book reader’s dream. The cover art (I love french flaps!) is taken from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 book Art Forms in Nature and is eye-catching. Many will pick up the book just to get a closer look. Then there are the deckle-edged pages which add to the book’s overall value as if to say “this is a book not to be overlooked.” And that is true. Ms. Barbeau has composed a notable debut novel, one that will make you eagerly await her next.
The story: a strange fish is landed by Vivienne, an oceaonographic research assistant who almost immediately makes an empathetic connection with it. The fish has been injured by the hook through its cheek and is bleeding.
For one moment, for one single breath, while the boat barely rocks on the glowing sea, Vivienne imagines easing the barbed jigger from the creature’s face. She imagines pouring the fish out of the fish box into the sea in a waterfall of red, the red fading to pink and then to nothingness in the endless wash of waves.
However she does bring the fish back to shore, and to Vivienne’s eventual dismay, her supervisor Colleen and Professor Isaiah are only interested in making a name for themselves off this discovery while keeping it all hush-hush. In the meantime, the creature languishes in a jerry-rigged tank in a dark corner of a shed they have rented to house their research equipment. Endless tests, including blood samples and tissue samples are taken, which violate the fish and pierce Vivienne’s caring heart. Vivienne is emotionally divided between her job as an RA and her feelings for the creature, which she insists on referring to it as “she” and not “it.”
But oh! the wondrous imagery Ms. Barbeau spins! The book is jam-packed with all types of it, and at times I hoped Ms. Barbeau could have dialled it back a bit (Save some for your next book!). Nevertheless, she keeps churning it out as if it is second-nature (and perhaps it is) and while I found it entrancing at times, at other times I found it detracted from the story. By a certain time time in the book, you just want to get to the climax of the story.
As for a superb example of Ms. Barbeau’s writing, I’ll quote a passage from one of my favourite chapters, “Library Books.” Vivienne has gone into town to get some old books on marine life from the library in the hopes of identifying the creature and she sits outside at a picnic table to browse through the books while she waits for Thomas, a local, to pick her up.
On the other side of the grass is a little pond with a boardwalk and a fountain, and the old railway station. The tracks have long ago been taken up, but a train car still sits on the platform, freshly painted and new-looking, as if at any minute, it might chug to life and take you away to who knows where. […] The book is large, nearly a foot square, and it is old. Old enough to smell of mould and dust. The book had been called up from Basement Reference. Vivienne has never been to the Basement Reference Room at the library – she doesn’t know anyone who has. She imagines it deep underground and cold. The librarians needing to do up all the buttons on their cardigans every time they descend. She wonders if Basement Reference is where she might end up if she could take the train without a track parked across the grassy meadow from the picnic table where she is sitting.
Vivienne is an emotional, thoughtful and kind person, but vulnerable, particularly when it comes to standing up to Colleen and the Professor (who makes a sexual and physical assault on her to ensure her silence about the creature). She eventually finds an ally in Tama, the owner of the nearby cafe (whose husband is having an affair with Colleen), and both women now have a cause to fight for.
Naomi MacKinnon at her Consumed By Ink blog enthused:
“Anyone who loves the sea, or feels drawn to stories of the sea, will likely feel drawn to The Luminous Sea by Melissa Barbeau, like I was. I was even nervous going into this book – I so wanted it to be good. Happily, it is more than good – it is splendid in every way.”
As I mentioned at the outset, The Luminous Sea is the type of first novel that will leave you wanting to read the author’s next effort. A notable first book, and I will add it to my 2019 longlist in the Best First Book: Fiction category.
The Luminous Sea by Melissa Barbeau
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