THE ODD SEA by Frederick Reiken


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A meditative and elegiac first novel that’s doomed to comparisons with Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, though it’s a much better book. The story is set in the western Massachusetts “hilltowns” (specifically, Cummington, where author Reiken works as a newspaper reporter) and narrated by Philip Shumway, who recalls the summer when he was 13 and his older brother Ethan mysteriously disappeared and never returned. Detailed flashbacks picture the Shumways as a high-spirited, gregarious family altered forever by the loss of its best and brightest: a talented musician who seemingly combined their father’s cheerful energy (he’s a carpenter) with their mother’s more thoughtful and reflective nature (and who loved, and was loved, more than those closest to him knew). Reiken effectively distinguishes them and Ethan’s four siblings (eldest sister Amy’s persistent anger is especially well realized), while portraying narrator Philip as a believably confused adolescent whose need to know Ethan’s fate leads him to compose “sketches in which he magically came home,” sketches that will become building-blocks (though Reiken doesn’t belabor this) in his progress toward becoming a writer. The book’s appealing title derives from a charming fairy tale (about “Sawchuk, the great beaver king”) that Philip’s father makes up, to entertain and distract his children, and that Amy recognizes as “The Odyssey, transposed,” while youngest sister Dana misrepeats as “the odd sea” (and, Philip explains in turn, that “by extension, the Odd Sea is what we came to call the place things disappear to, when they do”) Though grief and loss are constants throughout, the novel is anything but lachrymose or narrowly focused. Its spare prose, charged with understated but obviously strong emotion, memorably captures how its characters cope simply by persevering—and by doing things. There’s a moving parallel, for example, between the father’s life-saving obsession with the technique of timber-framing house construction and Philips’s development into a dedicated preserver of his own complex past. A beautiful, unsentimental work. (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-15-100360-2
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998


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