Rating 5 stars
I’m really pleased to have received a review copy of Erica Mou’s novel Thirsty Sea from the publisher Héloïse Press.
This is a story about love and loss, guilt and detachment, friendship and isolation. It’s beautifully written. The story is that of Maria, told over the course of 24 hours. It starts at the time of the evening meal, on the day of an uncelebrated, unacknowledged anniversary that brings Maria’s mother to Maria’s flat.
The translator’s note at the start sets the stage for this experimental novel. Clarissa Botsford’s description of her experience is fascinating and whetted my appetite for what was to come. Author Erica Mou plays with language, particularly words that contain other words and words that have double meanings. She’s also a songwriter and uses language lyrically. Botsford describes a process of trans-creation in which author and translator worked together to produce an English language version of this Italian novel that retained Mou’s playfulness, even if some of the translation isn’t faithful to the original. Botsford found Mou’s willingness to transform the text liberating. This collaboration between Mou and Botsford has created an English translation of visceral beauty.
The novel’s narrative is punctuated by compound words, followed by a short poem that, with the elusiveness and precision of a Japanese tanka, expands on the hidden meanings in the chosen compound word. Each of the four parts to the novel bears a word and poem on its title page; each chapter bears a word and poem on its final page. Words and poems are scattered throughout the narrative.
Maria is thirty-two. She lives with her boyfriend Nicola. She has a homecoming ritual that involves keys and the symbolism of arrival. At the start of the novel’s 24-hour period, this ritual is disrupted in stages by Maria’s reluctance to return, by a neighbour rendering the front door key redundant, and by the presence of a second person inside the flat, heard by Maria outside, confirming that this is the day of the anniversary.
I liked Maria. I liked her turn of phrase. She lives in a ground floor flat “because I don’t want to be over anybody’s head” and because “you can stack plates but not lives.” That’s an interesting way of thinking about high rise living, one that I hadn’t considered before.
I also enjoyed her depiction of her parents, summed up in the line “My father is like a stone, my mother washes around him.”
She runs a business finding “the right gift for the right person.” The vignettes that take place in her shop are sharp with sarcasm and with observations about her clients made through a very beady eye. She defines them as “1) People who are more insecure than they are imaginative 2) People who are lazier than they are caring”.
Maria, and her creator Mou, is of the generation that came after mine, the one I call Gen Z but popular culture has renamed The Millennials. I’ve read a few novels in recent years by Gen Z female writers with Gen Z protagonists, and the difference in perspective to my Gen X one interests me. For all that the protagonists of these novels appear confident and assured of their rights, their life goals, their entitlement to the life they want, etcetera, beneath the surface they are often a mass of insecurity, fatigued already by the world. Perhaps when you attain adulthood during an era of perceived stability, albeit one that hides the transience of employment and the fragility of the economy, while the key message “You can be anything you want” blares at you, the twin lacks of challenge and guidance are overwhelming and the compulsion is to gloss over this with an air of being in control. Maria’s business seemed to me to epitomise this fugitive control, based as it is on the niche creativity of her generation in finding a place for themselves, serving a need that others have overlooked, perhaps because it isn’t really a need.
Maria’s personal life also seems conflicted. She is grimly, deadpan funny about her fractured relationships. There are barbs everywhere. Her relationship with Nicola is stable, comfortable, dull. She should be happy in it, but it’s her parents who are more satisfied with her choice of significant other than she. She finds ways to stop him being close to her, physically and mentally; she daydreams about ways to unpick his life and undermine his stability; she chose him as her boyfriend because he seemed normal enough to experiment on. He is a pilot, a job Maria describes as all journey, no destination in a corruption of the popular phrase.
Her relationship with her parents, and particularly her mother, is skewed by the event that is the subject of the anniversary. She feels disconnected from them, because of the way they withdrew from her for a while. It reminded me in some ways of the separation experienced by Marina in Oldladyvoice; for very different but no less worrisome reasons, each child is shipped off to a grandmother while their parents deal with one of life’s big issues. Marina’s future is a more hopeful one than Maria’s, however. As Maria starts to open up about her past, Erica Mou creates beauty out of sadness.
There’s a touching image, wrought from the technological history of fax machines and modems, in which Maria describes precisely what has happened to her relationship with her father.
Summer never disconnected my parents, even though she left.
And I, who stayed behind, had been sent by my father somewhere else, like words in the fax machine.
I felt this, because my relationship with my father was similar, even though the cause of my father’s depression was different. And I understood that Maria’s emotional shunning by her father was the root of her dysfunction in her relationship with Nicola. That, never having been needed by a man, she doesn’t know what to do when it turns out that one actually does need her.
Mou’s eye for detail has the precision of the songwriter she is. She takes a moment and encapsulates it in a lyrical phrase that pinpoints time, location and emotion. Sentences are often short, like lines in a song. But Mou is also a writer of fiction and her paragraphs are expansions of her lyrical skill. In a favourite passage early on in the book, Maria has gone to the beach for a gathering organised by her parents. Alone, she sits on a rock and contemplates taking a swim while she waits.
I think I could dive in, but I know that on days like these, it’s best not to trust the sea. I know that the sea does it on purpose, it looks at you all calm and shimmery and you fall for it and take a sock off. But your big toe, an infallible thermometer, decides that no, it’s not time yet, and slips back into your shoe.
Maria’s interior world is dreamlike, drifting from moment to moment, not static but still somehow frozen. Her thoughts travel away from the 24 hours we are spending with her, pinging back like a piece of elastic when they stretch too far.
Gradually, Maria reaches further back to the anniversary event. It’s a moment of tragedy involving the burden of guilt, the burden of heredity, the burden of the expectations placed on the female body. The burdens are a block of marble at the core of her being, heavy and unshaped by any sculptor. The marble block fills her up and stops her satiating her hunger.
Since the event, when she was seven, which everyone tells her wasn’t her fault while behaving as though it is, Maria has “skipped all [her] primary needs”, which is how she has come to live with a man who chooses apartments on the basis of bathroom tile colour and water pressure, and how she is trapped in the passive aggression of her relationship with her mother. Apart from once, that is, when she left Italy for London armed only with her wallet, passport and toothbrush, and made friends with an American woman, with whom she could share all the thoughts and truths she kept hidden in Italy, and who would be her companion in insomnia. It’s a short-lived friendship, but while it lasts, Maria wishes she had a sister.
I had sympathy for Maria, for the trauma of her childhood, for the coping mechanisms of her adulthood. This is an emotionally intelligent novel, one that shares some DNA with Jessie Greengrass’s Sight in its exploration of grief, expectation and inertia. But it also combines the sorrow and anger of Maria’s situation with a biting humour that is often surreal. Ultimately, Maria makes light of her life because the infinity of options are overwhelming.
Thirsty Sea is an astounding debut and I hope it finds a wide audience when it’s published on 17 May.