Florida native Susanna Daniel (“Stiltsville”) returns to the watery world of her first book with the story of a young mother navigating the responsibilities and risks of parenthood.
In the summer of 1992, Georgia Quillian, her husband Graham, and 3-year-old Frankie moved from Illinois to make a fresh start in her hometown of Coral Gables, Fla. Eight years later, Georgia relives that summer, and in the course of “Sea Creatures,” the events that led up to it.
Graham suffers from a rare sleep disorder that leads to wandering at night, and Frankie has inexplicably stopped speaking. So when they move into a houseboat, even Georgia admits that it’s “a peculiar choice for any family, but especially for us.”
Promising that life on the water will be “an adventure,” Graham brushes aside her fears, and they settle in, he at a nearby oceanography institute, and Georgia as a part-time gofer and curator for a reclusive local artist, Charlie Hicks.
With Frankie in tow, Georgia learns to drive a borrowed two-seater boat across the bay to Charlie’s house in Stiltsville, a collection of wooden houses raised on pilings off the shores of Key Biscayne. From their very first visit, Georgia sees how “Frankie might … tumble down the stairs or off the dock.” When he disappears at one point, she signs to him, “I have to be able to see you all the time.”
In a story overflowing with the ways life tests us, regardless of how vigilantly we scour the horizon for danger, Georgia finds that “to be a parent is terrifying. But it seems to me that what worries us most — pedophiles, kidnappers, dog attacks — is least likely to happen, while what is most likely is some unimagined event. And how do we prepare for that?”
It’s a question most of the characters in Daniel’s book, many of them parents, have already dealt with to varying degrees of success, including Georgia’s late mother, whom she misses every day; her mostly absent father, a musician; her brusque but supportive stepmother; and Charlie, whose grief over the loss of his grown daughter has cost him a normal life.
And Graham. Though his sleepwalking involves violent episodes, he appears to be a father whose keen sense of fun and adventure offsets Georgia’s motherly anxieties. But since Frankie’s silence began, Graham has been distant, and when his job requires him to be gone for weeks at a time, Georgia sees a surprising change in her son’s behavior.
By comparison, Charlie radiates protection. He engages Frankie the minute they meet, learns to sign so they can communicate, and eventually takes the boy swimming, fishing and even diving in the shallow waters around his house. The sea creatures of the title refer to Charlie’s drawings and a show Georgia organizes for him at a Miami gallery, but also to the miniature toys Charlie gives her son, one for each visit: a seahorse, a little octopus, a small cast-iron mermaid, a tiny scuba diver.
Charlie’s focused affection for Frankie is a world away from Graham’s haphazard attentions. Charlie “wore fatherhood on his skin,” Georgia notes; the fiercely independent Graham “remained exactly the person he’d always been” before Frankie came along.
But Daniel draws the line at turning any of her characters into heroes or villains. Charlie has his demons, and Georgia feels sure she’s doing motherhood wrong. Complicating her role — and part of the novel’s honest exploration of the sacrifices a parent makes for a child — is Georgia’s craving for excitement and the way Graham’s risk-taking has defined their relationship.
With Frankie, a child so winsome and lovable your heart will pound every time he buckles on his water wings, “the stakes are higher.” The choice Georgia will have to make seems no less shattering than the hurricane heading straight for their stretch of the Florida coast.
The author, who grew up in Miami and spent much of her childhood in Stiltsville, offers a sensuous tribute full of history and local beauty to the area: “I marveled at the canopy of star-salted night, the dark open water spotted by whitecaps, the indistinct indigo horizon.”
An undercurrent of disaster pervades the novel, with its broad hints of bad luck and Georgia’s reminders of how the railings around Charlie’s house leave “plenty of room … for a toddler to fall through.” Yet Daniel’s celebration of life is so quietly joyous — in Georgia’s fond descriptions of her child and mercurial husband, in Charlie’s “intricate and evocative” drawings of sea creatures, and in the tender relationships that develop — that we cast our fears aside much as Georgia does.
“Traffic, heights, water,” Graham says. “There’s always something.” He’s right, of course. But the real risks Daniel asks us to consider are the inevitable ones that accompany love, including the hard and sometimes dangerous bargains we make to hold onto it.
Harper, $25.99, 320 pages
Susanna Daniel will appear the AJC Decatur Book Festival, Aug. 30-Sept. 1.