Monday, December 18, 2006

Wifely silences...

I was looking forward to reading The Seal Wife, by Kathryn Harrison; I like books about weather and the North. (What can I say, I'm Canadian!) Unfortunately, it was not ultimately a satisfying read. There were a lot of problems with the story for me. The main character, Bigelow, was a bit of a sad sack; I wanted to yell "Get over it!" at him. The women in the story were voiceless. The "Seal wife" was known only as "The Aleut", she does not speak and barely attempts to communicate with Bigelow even when they are having sex. It was entirely mysterious as to why she would even sleep with him in the first place. When she suddenly disappears he falls into an engagement with another mute woman, although she communicates through writing. This engagement ends with a bang when the Aleut returns at the end of the book, to very unconvincingly settle down as his mistress/maid of all work, hand sewing a huge weather kite for his work to replace the one his previous crazed fiancee caused him to lose. Domestic skill at his disposal, and silence, and sex. Just what a wife should be...
On first perusal, the title confused me. What was a Celtic myth doing attached to this story? However, on further research, I discovered that there is a coastal Native myth of the seal wife, in which a man is abducted to live with seals, escapes to discover he no longer fits in with his original grouping, and returns to his seal wife under the ocean. This bears out in this novel; if you see the Aleut as a "seal wife", or completely other, Bigelow is transfixed by her, and gives up his non-native fiancee in a flash for her. He suddenly shifts his outlook to seem to be an Alaskan, someone you could imagine staying where he was rather than endlessly dreaming of home.
I found a real positive in the crisp writing style. I could admire how the actual writing seemed to mirror the cold and isolation of Arctic life, and it was clear she inhabited her research. However, the actual story was a disappointment for me. If I were to recommend a novel of men in the Arctic it wouldn't be this one. I much preferred Andrea Barrett's "The Voyage of the Narwhal" for a novel of exploration, both of geography and of interior psychology.

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