The Odd Sea
Frederick Reiken’s first novel is a carefully wrought, richly textured story about the different ways a family copes with the mysterious disappearance of sixteen-year-old Ethan Shumway, the older brother of the narrator, Philip. It is also a meditation on the role that art plays in reclaiming that which has been lost.
Ethan vanishes one day in May after he walks from the driveway of the family home on his way to play in a local pond. No trace of him is ever found, except for one battered sneaker discovered two years later.
Each member of this close-knit family copes with the loss in a different way. Ethan’s father, a carpenter who runs his own business but is capable of greater things, eventually finds a new lease on life by doing what he had always wanted to do with his life. Two years after Ethan’s disappearance, he starts a modest timber-frame construction business. He becomes a true enthusiast of this traditional art, and several fine scenes in the novel describe it in detail; these serve to illuminate the theme of artistic creation as a mechanism for dealing with loss.
The theme first crops up early in the novel in a very subtle way. Not long after Ethan’s disappearance, the family goes to a restaurant. Ethan’s mother notices a photograph of a high- school soccer match hanging on the wall. One of the players shown is Ethan. His face is not visible, but he is recognizable by the number on his jersey. Ethan, though he is gone, is also not gone, at least not entirely. Art can give tantalizing glimpses of what is no longer present; it can memorialize what is absent in unexpected and unusual ways; it can also conceal and transform. Yet what is the relationship between the artistic form and the flesh-and-blood person? Reiken develops and plays with these ideas as the novel progresses.
While Ethan’s mother reacts to the loss by going into a depressive spiral, leading eventually to a complete breakdown and hospitalization, the children cope better. Each deals with the tragedy in his or her own way. Amy, the eldest, who is forthright and volatile, always quarreling with her sisters, is the one who faces up earliest to the reality that Ethan is probably dead. She is also the one with the most practical, common-sense approach to the future: “Unfortunately most idiots don’t realize that even though he’s gone our lives have to continue. That you still have to do homework and pass math tests. And that you’re still entitled to feel happy, now and then.” All they can do, says Amy, is to find Ethan inside themselves, inside their hearts, and hold him there.
This is a little too simple for Philip, a sensitive, highly intelligent boy who over the course of five years goes through a personal odyssey in his attempt to come to terms with the loss of his brother. Philip has a habit of clinging to wild theories that Ethan may still be alive. In the early days, he goes out searching in the woods nearby and manages to convince himself that every failure to find Ethan’s body increases the chances that he may be alive. He refers to these expeditions as “not- finding” trips. Three years later, when Ethan’s diary comes to light and is found to contain long entries on the art of Vincent Van Gogh, Philip becomes obsessed with the idea that Ethan went to Arles, France, the place most associated with Van Gogh.
When such theories are shown to be untenable, Philip is thrown back into searching for what the family calls the “odd sea,” the place that things disappear into (so christened when the youngest child, Dana, misunderstands the title of Homer’s Odyssey). Philip likens his state of mind to swimming around in an ocean searching for an answer. For the blond cheerleader Halley, the sister to whom he is closest, it is like swimming around inside a giant ghost.
Other metaphors are even more imaginative. Ethan’s girlfriend at the time of his disappearance, Melissa Moody, wistfully entertains a theory that Ethan fell through a “time doorway” into another universe and would one day return. Philip too searches for this time doorway, even though his mind is too sophisticated to take Melissa’s theory literally. He feels that Ethan is neither living nor dead but in some other realm, which Philip calls “the middle.” At one point, he speculates about theories of matter and antimatter in the universe. The antimatter is still in existence somewhere (and, by implication, so is Ethan), but where?
Looming larger than scientific theories, however, is art. Melissa, who is a promising painter, has chosen to preserve Ethan through her work. She shows Philip various paintings she has made since Ethan’s disappearance. Some of them have a surrealistic flavor. In one, Ethan lies asleep in a moonlit pasture; his chest is a skeleton, with violet flowers growing through his ribs. His body is tied to the earth, and his facial expression suggests contentment.
Melissa, though, also expresses some uneasiness about her work. She fears that she is merely trying to turn Ethan into something...
(The entire section is 2080 words.)