For this book to really break you open, you can’t know too much about the plot before you turn the first page. But I can tell you this much: that it’s set on the North Carolina coast at the end of the American Revolution, in a world where slavery is still the norm and death is a commonplace. You will begin this story in the company of Tabitha, a 10-year-old whose mother died in childbirth, and her father John, a former sailor.
Those are the specifics, but the wonder of this book is in the language this debut novelist uses to bring you there (‘his life has been a series of breaths held…he only lives to wait for loss’), and in the universals that link our lives today to those very different lives in 18th century America.
This is a book about loss, about grief, and about how those who are left behind get through the days. It’s about how we feel punished by fate or God, and how we punish ourselves, running over past mistakes and tragedies in our minds. That makes it sound terribly melancholy, and in many ways it is, but it also offers a strange, wild hope seen most clearly in the character of Davy, the impoverished, seemingly doomed son of a slave.
One of the crucial reminders I had reading it was of a lesson we often have to learn over and over again, the one about the dangers of leaving things unsaid, of how we can allow bitterness to calcify us instead of letting great sadness open us up. (‘In the absence of the beloved, there is new space for guilt and should-have-dones. Regret only exists once the opportunity for change has gone.’)
It made me think about what happens when we hang on tightly to our pain or our selfishness, and about the possibilities when we decide to keep putting one foot forward in front of the other in spite of what happens to us.
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith (The Borough Press, £14.99)