Somewhere Beneath Those Waves by Sarah Monette
The collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves by Sarah Monette (Prime Books, 2011), contains some twenty-five stories, some only a few pages long, so this review will be slightly more impressionistic than usual. As a generalisation, we read not only for the quality of the ideas but also for the means of expression. When the language is good, the ideas feel better. This is why it’s worth reading Sarah Monette. She’s one of the few modern writers than actually writes much of her prose using somewhat poetic language, but makes it feel cool. We start off with “Draco Campestris” which is a fascinating piece of writing. The more conventional narrative structure has stories flowing in a linear form. This is deliberately chopped into self-contained elements yet, when you put them together, they represent a remarkably powerful story about love unadmitted and loss. The dragons represent the magnificence of the past that’s now denied. The current reality in the museum finds the key players managing a fleeting acknowledgement of what might have been had circumstances been different. Yet, in the end, all things, including dragons, die. Also playing with form is “Katabasis: Seraphic Trains” which in a rather beautifully poetic way, recasts the story of Eurydice into more modern times and balances an unrequited love against sublime indifference — a kind of antiMuse who sucks in creativity and spits it out, rather than inspiring ever more powerful artistry. If a modern Eurydice found herself in a love triangle, how should she react? Or if a man found his wife had been seduced by the Queen of Elfland and only stayed with him and their child out of duty, how should he react?
So love may only be possible when status permits it. Perhaps all one needs is to believe in the supernatural powers of the other. Or, as between the mundane and supernatural worlds, perhaps ifrits can love. Then there are virgins who, in mythology, must always be sacrificed to save the city from a monster. These women are denied the chance of physical love, supposedly for the greater good. Similarly, if a King takes a Queen, love need not enter into it. The marriage may be an alliance between states or there’s nothing more than a functional desire to produce children. In the titular “Somewhere Beneath Those Waves”, we encounter more relationships without love and study the different forms of imprisonment employed. Men may treasure women because they have been trapped and tamed. They can lock them away, say in a museum, in a display that no-one else bothers to visit. How much better it would be for those women to be able to return to their natural state, roaming free, remembering what it was like before they were trapped into love and then held by fear or recognition that there might not be any better alternative. Or perhaps affection, if not love itself, is what we need as a bulwark against loneliness. What do you lose when your country is invaded? Overnight, men will die and women will be taken into servitude. Family relationships are destroyed. Perhaps one feral child who escaped the carnage can learn what love a mother can give. In a parallel story, we can speculate what is really lost when you discover you’re born into the wrong gender. Those affected may dream that something of a future may still be found even though the way is dark. Yet if you are to find someone to share your life, there’s the perpetual problem that others must see past the gender role and apparent physical appearance. They must want to see the person inside the body.
Then there’s death. Should we cry for those who have fallen, or is there some other way to deal with the grief? The answer, I suppose, will vary depending on the context and what’s been lost. “The Watcher in the Corners” both recreates the past and reflects on what life must be like when no-one loves you. Marriages can be loveless and innocent children can find themselves marginalised in adult affairs. Perhaps children need someone or something, if not to protect them, then to avenge them. Or perhaps those lost children need to way to reach out to the living so their passing can at last be confirmed. It’s the uncertainty that makes grief so difficult to deal with. Then we need spend a moment thinking about what’s lost when a sister marries and moves out of the family home. For those left behind to care for ageing relatives, the responsibility can be heavy, tinged with bitterness for those who have left.
It’s also strange how little some places change. We can have a mental picture of them as children and, later when we return, we discover that the old flow and pattern of life is the same. Some might find that reassuring, others intimidating. It’s rather the same with the prejudices we acquire as children. A nanny may tell us that goblins will come and take us away unless we co-operate by being well-behaved and sleeping on demand. Just think how disconcerting it would be to suddenly discover the need to enter the goblin realm and talk to them. “The World Without Sleep” finds us confronting four different groups who have lived in a form of social balance, not being aware of how unsatisfactory it all is. It takes an outsider to see the place for what it is and ask the right questions.
In all this, there’s straight fantasy and Lovecraftian high jinx, safe supernatural séances and more edgy mayhem. There’s functional language and florid similes and metaphors. Put it all together and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves takes you to places you might not have dreamed possible and makes them all seem perfectly reasonable. Indeed, as a final thought it even offers the advice that, if you do not like yourself, you cannot expect to like others. All anyone needs to progress in this life is enough determination to rise above hardship and look on the future as a challenge to be overcome. Put baldly on a page in a single sentence, this can seem trite. Incorporate it in a story about a woman maimed by a dragon and it suddenly assumes a power you might not have anticipated. Such is the strength of Sarah Monette’s imagination. This is not a collection to rush through. You should take your time, and consider the prose dreams through which she offers insights into the uncertainties that afflict us all.
A particular mention should be made of the jacket artwork by Elena Dudina. Not only is it beautiful in its own right, but it also rather neatly captures the themes of the collection.
For reviews of other books by Sarah Monette, see:
A Companion to Wolves (with Elizabeth Bear)
The Bone Key Joint review with The Guild of Xenolinguists.
The Bone Key Stand-alone review.
The Tempering of Men (with Elizabeth Bear)