Travel, love, friendship and bravery. The tides of history, personal and political. Currents which pull us towards people and draw us away.
Is friendship, rather than love, the stuff on which we survive? What makes a place a home, as opposed to somewhere we merely eke out a living without joy or friendship?
These are some of the motifs in this novel of arresting imagery, which is centred around a handful of characters drawn to the eponymous Sea and Us fish and chip shop.
Harold, 36-years-old, returns to Melbourne after 18 years in Seoul, leaving behind the shards of an intense relationship with the alluring Ha-yoon. He takes a room above the Sea and Us and from this safe port on Lygon St, begins to live again.
De Saint Phalle's story has a keen pulse, her writing an electric, original quality even as some of her characters strain the bounds of credibility.
The stunning, smart and sassy Marylou is a prostitute who shows few outward signs of either her childhood incest or on-the-job assaults. She's well-read too, Dostoyevsky and Chandler her only bulwarks against a life on the streets. Verity, the kind-hearted fish and chip shop proprietress, never seems to worry about actually turning a profit in her small shop.
But perhaps these criticisms are extraneous to the nature of this work, and the sometimes dreamy, almost fable-like story of travellers finding their feet again.
Watery motifs abound. In Seoul, the narrator and Ha-yoon would sit side by side in a "watery belonging" as the Cheonggyecheon Stream slipped over two pairs of feet. Harold's teacher, the master potter Do-yun is like a submerged leviathan in the lives of both Harold and Ha-yoon. Harold muses over life's flotsam, jetsam, ligan, goods on the seabed which someone has staked a claim to; and derelict goods, sunken cargo which can't be rescued.
The charge in the plot comes from an unlikely rescue mission. Marylou regards herself as utterly derelict, but Harold retraces his flight from Seoul to rescue her from the streets. He gambles everything on Marylou and the way he fights for her is in contrast to his swift decision to sever all ties with the beautiful Ha-yoon.
Perhaps then home is the place in which we find our feet and realise that there is no turning back. Home becomes the place from which we can then throw a lifeline to another.
- Christine Kearney is a Canberra-based writer.
- The Sea & Us, by Catherine de Saint Phalle. NewSouth, $29.99.