Katy Simpson Smith’s luminous debut novel is The Story of Land and Sea*, a careful, spare tale of family in late-eighteenth-century America.
What interested me first in the novel was Paul Yoon’s advance praise; I loved his novel Snow Hunters, which was published last year. (Mr. Yoon teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars, which Ms. Smith attended.) Like Snow Hunters, The Story of Land and Sea often reads like poetry; Ms. Smith’s prose is extraordinarily graceful.
Graceful and powerful, too — at a mere 240 pages, The Story of Land and Sea contains so much material that a lesser novelist might have molded it into a sprawling 500-page book, or even a trilogy. Yet Ms. Smith’s compact style is highly evocative and time and place, and studded with descriptive jewels. For instance, one character picking roses “prefers the blossoms with petals tightly packed, like women’s skirts” (176-77); another “comes downstairs in bare feet, her head feeling crowded with sharp rocks” (18).
Told in three parts spanning twenty-odd years, the novel orbits around three parent-child pairings in a coastal North Carolina town: John and his daughter Tabitha, Asa and his daughter Helen (later John’s wife and Tabitha’s mother), and Moll and her son Davy.
John is a former pirate. Asa is a respected landowner. Moll is a slave — Helen’s slave.
These three parents love their children with ferocity, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles and losses. All the characters are rendered with compassion and imbued with full emotional ranges. The role faith (and despair) plays in the novel is incredibly nuanced, especially as it intersects with the most terrible of American institutions: slavery.
The Story of Land and Sea is a story of parents and children, but it is also a story of how America came to be, how a nation conceived in the hope of freedom came into the world blighted with the cancer of enslavement. It reveals the terrible price of the loss of empathy, or its fundamental lack.
Moll, who needs freedom most, is the least free of all the characters, so constrained that she cannot bring herself to love the children she bears after Davy:
Two years passed before her second child, and by then she understood that these babies belonged to someone else. Love was weakness. Love was acknowledging the rightness of the world, and this she could not do. The children were beautiful and they deserved affection and she would do her almighty best, but her firstborn son was the last thing she allowed herself to cherish. (167)
The Story of Land and Sea is an unflinching look at the worst and the best of human nature, a beautiful meditation on American origins, and a compelling family saga. Highly recommended reading.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.