Sand and Seasickness in a Pretty but Thin Tale
By Jeanne E. Fredriksen
Oh, would that Katy Simpson Smith had told a story of post-Revolutionary America that rocked with swashbuckling, colorful characters, and Beaufort, North Carolina. Her debut novel, “The Story of Land and Sea” could have been something more than strings of beautifully written sentences. But it wasn’t.
The ocean town of Beaufort is the primary setting of this early American tale built on gloriously written language that sweeps the reader away to a bleak and dreary time in America’s history. Written in three parts, the author examines desperate loves, doleful losses and the despondent relationships between them.
Asa, a widower who lost his wife in childbirth and who produces turpentine on his plantation, has a testy relationship with his son-in-law, John, a former pirate and soldier, who swept Asa’s daughter Helen off her feet and out to sea. Helen, the love of John’s life, died giving birth to Tabitha, their only child. When yellow fever claims 10-year-old Tabitha, both John and Asa are left with no one but themselves and Asa’s slaves.
Overall, this book is more an accounting than a story filled with characters that interact. Smith’s writing yields beautiful imagery that paints pictures so emotionally true that they are like pieces of art. However, the scarceness of dialogue and the lack of depth to her characters set up a wall between page and reader as if she were protecting her charges from harm greater than she’s already afflicted them with.
This book isn’t for everyone. Action is distant, personal communication is limited, and a dreary cloak of desperation sets a constant, heavy tone. Nevertheless, for those who love to read for the sake of beautiful writing, I can’t say “The Story of Land and Sea” shouldn’t be considered.
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“The Story of Land and Sea,” by Katy Simpson Smith. HarperCollins Publishers: New York. 2014. This book is available at local bookstores and through the Wake County Public Library system.