Originally released in 2004, Samantha Hunt’s first novel, The Seas, was republished in 2018 by Tin House. It’s hard to believe that The Seas might be anyone’s first anything. The story moves masterfully, manipulatively, and with wicked, charming calculation at every turn. In her introduction to the 2018 edition of the novel, writer Maggie Nelson muses with regard to The Seas, “You know the feeling when you…suddenly find that a book has become more than a book, it’s become a talisman, something precious. A little scary, a little holy.” With The Seas, Samantha Hunt has given readers a gift—one that’s certainly scary and undoubtedly holy.
The book’s story can easily be categorized as magical realism—but it’s a strange and beautiful thing to consider how much of this feeling comes from the more tangible realities Hunt constructs, versus from the story’s unusual narrator. The surreal nature of the story and its realities combined with the dreamy, disconnected essence of our narrator leads readers to enter a derealized state in which we’re swept along completely with the flow, completely without the ability to stop or even paddle for ourselves—similar in some ways to the feeling of existing in grief, or love. Or both.
The novel itself begins with a section entitled, “THE MAP: A PROLOGUE.” In it, our narrator details the physical layout of her town—and the constraining social dynamics of it. “The highway only goes south from here,” she begins. “If you were to try to leave, people who have known you since the day you were born would recognize your car and see you leaving…It would be much easier to stay.” In these first paragraphs, despite the seemingly boundless, shifting quality brought on by the magical and unearthly elements of the story, our narrator lets us know that the boundaries she’s facing—the same ones we’re facing with her—are hard and fast. Those who fall within the physical boundaries are Here. Those who don’t are Gone. In laying this map, this “prologue,” the story’s narrator gives us the physical lay of her land; she also creates a feeling of being kept, and a glimmer of what it may mean to escape.
Through elegant symbolism and remarkable narrative voice, Hunt explores love and grief and sanity in, remarkably, one fell swoop. At once viscerally grounded and entirely unhinged, Hunt provides readers with a sense of being swept out with the tides; she provides both a feeling of constantly losing our footing, while feeling sure that this is where we ought to be—here, reading this book, feeling these things. For those willing to be swept away, dragged under, and washed ashore, The Seas is uncomfortable, wonderful, violent, romantic, and haunting. I’ll be careful never to stow it on too high a shelf.
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Kathryn Davis is a writer and editor from Michigan, as well as one of two current Sundress Academy for the Arts interns. She graduated in 2018 from Grand Valley State University, where she studied Creative Writing with an emphasis in Fiction, and served as editor-in-chief of the university’s literary journal, fishladder. She enjoys photography, her cats, and her dog (who might as well be a cat). You can follow her on Twitter at @kathrvndavis.