Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: The Sea of Light by Jenifer Levin

The Sea of Light by Jenifer Levin

Untreed Reads, 2012

A lot of book blurbs show up in my inbox. I'm on the e-mailing lists for my own publishers, plus all the publishers from whom I've purchased books in the past. I skim most of the notices I receive; rarely do I take any action. When Untreed Reads sent me the blurb for Jennifer Levin's The Sea of Light, however, something moved me to contact the publisher and request a review copy, which they were kind enough to provide.

Only later did I learn that the novel, originally published in 1993, is considered a classic of modern lesbian fiction. It deserves the acclaim it has received. The Sea of Light is the eloquent, painful and ultimately transcendent story of three exceptional women – their ambitions, their secrets, their weaknesses and their passions.

Babe Delgado has been groomed from childhood to be a champion swimmer. As she reaches her peak in her late teens, the Olympics beckon. Then a hurricane named Angelita dashes her team's plane into the Atlantic, killing the men and women closest to her. Two days adrift in the pitiless sea leave her hovering on the edge of death herself, irrevocably scarred both physically and psychologically.

Brenna Allen wanted to be a champion, but her body betrayed those dreams. Now she coaches the swim team of a small Massachusetts university, tough, driven, channeling the near-vicious intensity of her own former coach. Mourning the loss of her English-professor lover Kay to cancer, Brenna pours every ounce of her emotional energy into transforming what she knows is second-rate material into a winning team. She is perceptive, intelligent and exercises fanatical self-discipline. As she manipulates parents, colleagues and her own swimmers in the quest of victory, she tries to ignore, deny or hide her own needs.

Ellie Marks, captain of Brenna's team, knows she'll never be more than an average athlete, but that doesn't stop her from dedicating herself to serving the coach she loves and admires. The child of holocaust survivors, Ellie knows more than a twenty year old should about suffering and loneliness. She recognizes that her desire for Brenna will never be consummated, and yearns for someone who will love and accept for who she is – a woman who loves other women.

A year or more after Angelita, Brenna manages to recruit the still-fragile and damaged Babe to join her team. Under Brenna's careful tutelage, the former winner begins to heal and her performance begins to approach her former capabilities. It is more difficult, though, to rebuild her shattered spirit. Gradually her friendship with Ellie helps Babe overcome her survivor's guilt and her self-disgust. Ellie, however, needs more than a friend.

Narrated mostly in the first person present, by these three women as well as several ancillary characters, The Sea of Light is a terrifyingly intimate book. Babe, Brenna and Ellie each conceal far more of themselves than they reveal to the outside world, but the reader gets a glimpse into their souls, and that's not always a comfortable place to be. For these women, honest communication presents a nearly insurmountable challenge, even when they are in the company of people they love. Every character – even the minor ones – experiences a level of isolation so painful that I was tempted to put the book aside for something less taxing. However, Ms. Levin's insight into the subtleties of emotional experience kept me reading. And the ultimate connections between the characters, imperfect though they are, have a luminous joy that balances the pain.

I would not label The Sea of Light as erotica, but sex and sexuality are recurring themes. The author vividly describes the experience of being queer in a straight world. Brenna, in particular, fears being “outed”, but even Ellie, more accepting of her own sexual orientation, feels confused and alienated. In one of my favorite passages, Brenna describes her experience visiting San Francisco with her lover and discovering an environment where lesbians and gay men are so common that they're completely unremarkable.

I kicked around the city feeling lazy, sated, drowsy, like a well-fed animal. It was there – near that hilly nexus of streets in the Castro, as I wandered in and out of shops smiling at people, at women and at men who were all naturally, casually, unquestionably gay – where I felt there was this dark cold thread inside me that might be broken, that could be changed to something resembling the nature of light. If only I could stay there somehow, in that city – with Kay, with my very own love – and wake up every morning to know how intrinsically, undeniably mine the city was, how at the core of it stood this still-unfulfilled offering of ecstasy and freedom, a self-contained world where straight people mattered not at all. I could feel the bright sure power of that. Beyond the power, very close, lurked dignity; and beyond that, I knew, there was peace.

The sexual encounters in The Sea of Light are as intricate and nuanced as the rest of the book. As Babe and Ellie discover one another, Brenna is drawn back into the orbit of her old friend Chick, the woman who introduced her to Kay. This is Chick's voice in the next passage, describing their inevitable but emotionally tangled physical encounter.

Some things we remember in detail; others, in metaphor. Maybe that's why, later, it will come back to me as a blur: the long, long time that the kiss went on, became not a kiss anymore but an exploration of skin; the beginning of how we touched hair, lips, cheeks, breasts and thighs through cloth; the moment she started to take off my clothes, there on the floor in front of cold pizza and a snorting dog, and I let her do all the work – sensing somehow that seizing the physical initiative was what she needed. There had been something vaguely frightening and unfamiliar about my saying where and when. Her power to control and to please linked inextricably to her passion; and if I wanted her passion, and mine, I would have to give up a measure of my own control – not something I ever did lightly. But I realized, through a cloud of anxiety and desire, that control was a much-overrated thing I could do without. And, anyway, we must all give it up in the end.

These two passages I've just quoted will give you a feel for the flavor of Ms. Levin's prose – complex, expressive, ideas tumbling over one another, moods and thoughts flitting by instant to instant – all this internal churning, separate from the outside world. Indeed, this is a very internal book. Aside from the disaster of Angelita that sets the tale on its tracks, not a lot happens. The movement is all inside the characters.

Because of this, I feel that the book would actually have been stronger if Ms. Levin had restricted the narration to the three protagonists (although I would be sorry to forgo Chick's eloquent and perceptive voice above). In order to move the story forward, the author provides short chapters from the perspectives of Babe's father, Babe's mother, Babe's brother, even an elderly Afro-Cuban bruja who is Babe's real world aunt and true spiritual parent. These other people are important only because of the light they shine on the main characters. Allowing them the space and time to speak diluted the focus of the novel to some extent. 
Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed The Sea of Light. I would not call it entertaining – enlightening, moving, or satisfying would be more appropriate descriptions. On the other hand, I find deep pleasure in prose that is beautiful and true - like the writing in this fine novel.

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