REVIEW by Ed Garland

NWR Issue r33

From Seven to the Sea

by Jayne Joso

Cover of From Seven to the Sea by Jayne Joso published by Seren

From Seven to the Sea begins on the narrator Esther’s seventh birthday. It’s also the day of her mother’s wedding, to a man who is not Esther’s father. And Esther and her mother, Maud, are moving far away from their home so they can live in the man’s house. And everyone’s forgotten it’s Esther’s birthday. ‘He was not very tall and he didn’t have a nice face,’ Esther informs us of her new stepfather. Also he has ‘thick yellow teeth, dinosaur teeth, the kind you see in museums.’ She doesn’t like these teeth, or anything else about ‘the lower half of his face’. His eyes are alright, but he soon turns out to be a classic domineering dickhead, almost one-dimensional in his bitter selfishness.

By the time they arrive at the wedding, Esther has been sick all down her bridesmaid’s dress, which means she can’t be a bridesmaid, but she can go and visit the seaside with a couple of kind wedding guests who don’t mind missing the ceremony. From here onwards, the sea provides Esther with the solace she does not have in the disorientating surroundings of her new family life. ‘The man’ likes to forbid Esther from having any fun. He drives her to school most mornings, and keeps up a running monologue on the poor form displayed by every other driver on the road, especially the women, while letting Esther know what a nuisance it is to have to drive her all that way. Esther’s disappointment and disorientation is captured in rhythmical, looping prose: ‘Something had happened. Everything was strange, everything was odd, and new, and the sort of new that isn’t really good or nice. Everything had moved. Everything was in the wrong place and had the wrong feeling.’ Moments of realisation like this are scattered throughout the text, in which Esther makes observations in a precocious but subtle lyrical voice. This voice has an addictive rhythm. Sometimes it irritates, too, but I suppose it wouldn’t be authentically child-like if it didn’t sometimes try your patience.

Increasingly disconnected from her mother and ‘the man’, Esther starts to discover a local world of her own, which her parents know very little about. She discovers the boats in the harbour: ‘They leaned one into the other, partly settled in the mud below. Wood decks with curious doors here and there, some seemingly in the floor leading into the hull, the belly of the beasts; and then her gaze settled on the little house shapes, shed shapes, box shapes, some as though piled one on top of another, planted onto the decks.’ Within this abundance of enticing home-like structures, she finds a sense of safety. Following her own rule that bearded men are probably decent, she befriends Pete, a laughing, pipe-smoking man who lives on one of the boats. Pete gives Esther various onboard tasks, and talks about the sea, and is always laid-back. He’s a kind of social refuge, the opposite of the cartoon villain Esther’s mother has married.

Esther spends more and more time with Pete on his boat, when she ought to be at school. She has a couple of friends at school but mostly she is bullied and ridiculed there, even by her teacher. The harbour is a soothing environment: ‘She felt her heart rate coming back into rhythm with the rest of her body, she felt more real, more ordinary, more alive, not stiff, not mechanical.’ We don’t really learn much about the sea itself. The narrative is more a study of the positive effect of the ocean’s proximity, and of Pete’s presence on Esther’s state of mind. She observes him filling his pipe with tobacco. ‘The slowness involved and the care he took always stopped her in her stride. There was something truly calming about this practice, the slowness of it, the stillness and considered moves.’ Pete enables Esther to grow. Over the summer, Esther suffers a couple of distressing incidents, but Joso doesn’t try too hard to set up any shocks or twists. Although we can never be sure what dramas and tragedies Esther will encounter, Joso allows Esther’s life to steadily unfold in a beguiling first-person voice. I thought I could hear faint echoes of Brenda Chamberlain’s Tide-race, and of Candy Neubert’s Big Low Tide, books in which the presence of water creates a certain mental climate in the characters, a blend of reflection and apprehension. Plot is submerged under the swell and flow the sea during ‘one short summer’ in Esther’s life. Joso’s distinctive novel is a graceful and richly-imagined coming-of-age tale that provides its own peculiar answer to the problem of what to do when you wake up to find everything is ‘in the wrong place’.

We publish on our New Welsh Rarebyte label Ed Garland’s debut book, a collection of essays called Earwitness, A Search for Sonic Understanding in Stories, on 31 October.

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