In her debut novel, The Sea Change, Joanna Rossiter writes about a peculiar kind of grief. I do not know the name of it. I wish I did.
Her book, you see, is about lost landscapes. She bases her story on two real events: the appropriation of Imber, a Wiltshire village, by the War Office in 1943; and a coastal community in India crushed by tsunami in 1971.
In each case there is destruction, the residents are displaced, their homes are robbed and the familiar environment scarred and garrotted. War and wave bring death to families caught up in them – and yet there are survivors too, left to mourn, recover and possibly to rebuild.
Rossiter gives us one family touched by both incidents. In 1971 (‘the present’), Alice is travelling overland through the Middle East to India with her spur-of-the-moment husband, having left her mother, Violet, in England on bad terms.
Meanwhile, her mother’s Imber upbringing forms the other portion of the story three decades earlier. She is the daughter of a parson, and Pete is the object of her teenage infatuation.
When catastrophe comes, personal loyalties are tested: the roots to the past that hold you back; the excitement and appeal of new experiences pulling you forward.
Violet’s love for Pete is intriguing. He is a wanderer without sentiment for any specific location, whereas Vi harbours a deep desire to ‘go home’, though war games have rendered Imber unrecognisable.
Her relationship with her daughter is equally complex. Alice’s adventuring hurts Violet, is intended to spite her, perhaps. The strings of affection tug, knot and unravel.
Rossiter has a gift for bringing geography to life, her descriptive passages are some of the loveliest and most effective I can recall reading. Likewise the devastation of landscapes she’s so skilfully created are poignant and anxiety-inducing. Rossiter makes it easy for us to see through Violet’s eyes, to empathise with her pain as her beloved birthplace is ripped apart. But as well as being a beautiful book, I think this is a subtle one. Is there something self-indulgent in Violet’s grief? Undignified even? (Bricks and mortar aren’t people after all.) Do villages have a heart, the same as any other loved one? It is an interesting question, intelligently asked.
One of the greatest pleasures I had reading this novel is the recurring theme of water damaged paper: the patches of mould on wallpaper like an atlas; the damp books drying over a banister; the ring from a teacup on an open map; the letter turned to mulch by the sea. I read a chapter in the bath and accidently got some pages wet – it was as if the moisture had leaked out of it.
Rossiter has a mature sensibility. She writes with fluency and grace. It seems implausible that The Sea Change is a debut novel, but it is. And the prospect of more work as good as this, or even better, is tantalising. She knows herself.
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter
Published in the UK by Penguin, April 2013
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