The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker, Virago. £8.99 Sterling.
A young woman sits down to write her life story, which is the story of her parents and of her grandparents, with scant sources to draw on. She has a photograph of her mother, her father’s drawings, diaries and letters, and her memories, more or less accurate, more or less complete. From these she will construct a narrative to explain herself to herself, as best she can. She’s supposed to be setting out on a journey, and her travelling companion is growing impatient, wants to be off, can’t see why the delay is needed.
Her parents’ story is summed up in a single sentence; ‘They met at sea, they were at sea, they parted by sea.’ Like the narrative as a whole, this summary is not necessarily factually accurate, but it is essentially true. Carlotta Dell’oro’s parents met while a sea voyage was being planned. Her mother, Clotilde, was the daughter of naturalist/collector Felix Girard, her father, Leo, is to be ship’s artist on Felix’s latest, last voyage of exploration. Leo is shy, awkward and obsessed by Clotilde; she is acerbic, a touch cruel, and equally obsessed with her Papa. As the voyage unfolds, they circle round each other, each lovesick in their own way.
And then Felix disappears, presumed dead. Clotilde and Leo end up married and living in Leo’s native Whitby in a house called the Birdcage. Leo decides to learn glassmaking to try to bring his drawings of strange sea creatures to a kind of life; meanwhile Clotilde pines for Papa and indulges in a little mercenary adultery with his new boss as she begins to plot her escape from this new life. On land, they are all at sea.
The Glass Ocean is a novel of dislocation. None of the characters is capable of actually knowing any of the others, except as characters in stories. Leo cannot see that Clotilde is planning to leave, she can’t see that he is nearer to being like her father than she is, Carlotta can see some of what’s happening, but cannot articulate it. Inevitably the bonds between these people are in some sense provisional. Felix abandons the life of a French surgeon that his wife’s family planned for him and she in turn, abandons him. He then abandons Clotilde and she, in her turn, abandons Carlotta and Leo. Leo abandons his Italian immigrant family to go to sea, even his sister Anna, to whom he was especially close. In death, he abandons his daughter, too.
And yet… The final impetus, the push that causes Clotilde to leave, is the discovery of a map that indicates that Felix’s disappearance was planned and that he may be still alive. This drive to find him is perhaps her first fully volitional act since his disappearance. It also leads to the book’s resolution, an equally willed and integrative decision by Carlotta, the journey she is about to set off on.
The world of the Victorian naturalist is endlessly fascinating, a world in which science, obsession, showmanship and commerce, frequently shady enough, overlapped to form the basis of modern life sciences. It’s a world that Baker depicts with affection and no little insight. Sensibly, she has avoided writing in a kind of Victorian pastiche; apart from occasional sentences in direct speech, the book is written in a reasonably neutral dialect, without place or time, capable both of great poetry and of clear-headed matter-of-factness.
If you approach novels expecting realism, you might be inclined to question how a neglected and uneducated child could produce anything quite so coherent, but this would be to miss the point entirely. As mentioned earlier, this story is explicitly a fiction, a demonstration, on one level, that all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are fictional. Carlotta Dell’oro is both an unreliable narrator and a conscientious one. She makes no attempt at disguising the fact that she frequently has to imagine what must have happened where she has no way of knowing what did.
She, or rather Baker, is also careful not to indulge too much in easy literariness. At one point when she finds herself creating an extended bit of pathetic fallacy, she immediately undercuts it with a blunt ‘nobody’s mood controls the weather, not really’. This awareness of what she is about permeates Carlotta’s narrative style throughout.
It is to Baker’s great credit as a novelist that the writing can evoke a character who is self-conscious without suffering from self-consciousness itself. Equally, it is interesting that so stylised a novel should be populated by characters the reader comes to really care about and feature a narrative that develops into something of a page turner. Baker is a widely-published writer of short fictions, but The Glass Ocean is her first novel. On this evidence, it seems unlikely to be her last.