The elemental passions of two siblings fuel this first novel, whose contemporary trappings fall away to reveal a fable outside time.
Janet and Stephen are lovers in a vaguely defined England. They are youngish and have careers in the arts and live together in low-key harmony. Janet gets a call from a lawyer: Her mother died three weeks ago and has left her a small house. Janet is startled; surely her mother died years ago in America? Still, she drives north, alone; though she suffers from seizures, brief electrical storms in her head, she can handle them. The tiny, remote house is by the sea. Outside is a stranger named Tom, a garage mechanic. They have matching keys. Janet’s protests that she is the sole legal owner fall on deaf ears; Tom’s in possession. Into this straightforward narrative Wagner (Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters, 2001, etc.), the American-born literary editor of The Times of London, has inserted memories—Tom’s, of being raised alone by his mother (who would eventually abandon him); and Janet’s, of being raised alone by her father in America. Tom’s mother told him fairy tales, of a mother abandoning her baby for a magical seafaring lover, of a seal who could change into a woman. Janet’s father’s stories were based in reality: traveling to England on a liner, meeting the love of his life, returning with his bride. The turning-point comes when Janet smashes her cell phone; there will be no return to Stephen. She is not afraid of Tom; they share the same mother. Blood is calling to blood. Barriers dissolve as Tom and Janet make love and later swim alongside a pair of seals. They share a feeling of loss, but they have found each other, and the chance to make a new home (a key concept).
Wagner’s clean, sturdy prose imparts an inevitability to what is taboo, but some gratuitous mystification prevents a complete surrender to her spell.