The Story of Land and Sea,
by Katy Simpson Smith
Everyone knows something about the power of things, how they remind us of our actions over time, how they have the power to delight or disappoint us. I’m referring here to what Katy Simpson Smith calls “oddments”—the items we don’t mean to collect, that we can’t quite bring ourselves to throw away, that we put on a desk in a spare room and forget. The crockpot that never made it out of the box. The bent magazines spilling out of the rack by the toilet. The figurines, the silly coffee mugs, the infomercial gadgets that turned out to be hunks of useless plastic.
Katy Simpson Smith’s debut novel, The Story of Land and Sea, is in part a melancholic celebration of this power of things. Set in the coastal town Beaufort, North Carolina, in the wake of the American Revolution, it is first a love story between John, a privateer, and Helen, the self-proclaimed “servant of God” who manages her father’s turpentine plantation. I’m not spoiling anything if I mention here that Helen dies—we’re told so in the first sentence, and her absence sets the tone for the rest of the story. The novel also opens with their daughter Tabitha—who enlivens her lonely childhood by collecting oddments from the beach—and with John’s daily efforts to be single parent. We also meet Helen’s father, Asa, who lives by a makeshift, fire-and-brimstone Episcopalian doctrine that turns his behavior toward his granddaughter almost puritanical. When Tabitha comes down with yellow fever on her tenth birthday, John resorts to his privateering instincts and carries his daughter aboard a ship bound for Bermuda, hoping that the sea will make her well again.
Just as this storyline swells to unthinkable loss, Smith suddenly shifts back in time, to Helen’s tenth birthday, when a widowed Asa gives her a young slave named Moll instead of the silver hairbrush she asked for. Smith is at her finest when she develops Helen and Moll’s complex friendship:
The girls sleep in the same room that night, one on a mattress stuffed with goose feathers, the other on the floor. When Helen wakes in tears, Moll climbs into the bed and lets the smaller girl curl up against her shoulder. Even in September, the floor gets cold without sun.
In glimpses such as this, Smith weaves intricate patterns of motive and action that result in heartbreaking moral ambiguity: Moll’s getting into Helen’s bed seems like one of those kind gestures we love to see in friendship narratives—yet Moll’s real motivation, as Smith’s narrator lightly observes, is selfish.
Surprisingly, Asa is not yet religious during Helen’s childhood, and indeed, Helen’s attempts to proselytize her father come up short. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary War rages somewhere in the background, and John, a soldier now, appears in Helen’s life as the war is supposedly ending. Smith riffs on the marriage plot to attempt to create a love both believable and compelling, and she’s largely successful. There’s a kidnapping, and an elopement: while other authors might use these devices as cheap grabs at the reader’s attention, Smith integrates them organically, as suspenseful elements in a deeply introspective novel.
Once John and Helen’s love story finds closure in marriage, the story picks up where the first part left off. Smith shows us how John and Asa cope, or fail to cope, with their next trial. The point of view toggles between the two widowers, and the resulting counterpoint of each man’s grief becomes, at times, exhausting to read. John and Asa, bound together by ghosts they can’t relinquish, are uncomfortably alike despite their differences. Both Helen and Tabitha collect oddments (frayed ends of rope, sand dollars, their mothers’ bibles, broken pearls), and John and Asa cling to things the women left behind: Helen’s portrait, a roll of silk for a dress that can never be worn, the hollow in Asa’s mattress where his wife once slept. Fascinatingly, Smith creates a wartime world where, in Tabitha’s words, “death only comes to mothers.” Or as Helen says, “Women were the ones who died.”
Smith’s sentences are observant, contemplative, and careful, but sometimes they reach a little too far and end up pointing out the obvious or slipping into cliché. (“Did all explorers,” Helen once muses, “launch toward the unknown with such joy?” Or, “This is not what life has done to her, but what she, Helen, has done to her life.”) Most of the time, however, her unique style produces beautiful results. Smith’s language has a cinematic quality, often pausing on shots of a room, a pair of shoes, the woods. She also writes sentences that beg to be read aloud and with the cadence of poetry: “Her bedroom becomes wild / with the ocean’s debris. / She steps on something sharp and pulls / broken brass from a sucking cove. . . .” Her attention to minor characters is often surprising in its depth: “He reaches for his chest to hold on to his musket strap, but of course he’s left it at his mother’s house.” This young author has an uncanny ability to imagine and realize the soldier’s impulse.
The Story of Land and Sea is a memorable debut, rich with small, sharp moments of observation and understanding. Smith is able to evoke the sadness and retrospection of a poetic voice without poetry’s tendency to obfuscate; she is emotive without lapsing into melodrama. The upshot is that this is by no means a cathartic novel: instead, Smith jabs us with a finger and asks why we feel the way we feel about the story’s events, which is both unsettling and bizarrely enjoyable.
Read this book, anyway, if you like “things”—especially beautiful things, sad things, and quiet things. The Story of Land and Sea delivers all of these oddments, and when you’re done you’ll want to go up into your attic—the real one, the metaphorical one, or both—to open the boxes you keep there.
Art by Anna Tomczak.