By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 9:36 PM
By Jeremy Page.
Viking. 274 pp. $25.95
Nicole Kidman's "Rabbit Hole" opens Friday on a tide of advance praise and mutterings about Oscar nominations. It's an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a couple whose 4-year-old son is accidentally killed. Acclaimed movies about horse-racing or India or Julia Child usually stir up interest in related books, but Jeremy Page's thoughtful novel about a father who loses his 4-year-old daughter is unlikely to get that boost from Hollywood. There is a limit, after all, to how much any of us wants to consider such tragedies, and yet the demands of this grim subject have inspired some novelists' best work. Anne Tyler portrayed grieving parents in one of her finest novels, as did Anne Hood, Stephen King, Francine Prose, Stewart O'Nan, Lorrie Moore and others.
"Sea Change" - the title is the only thing worn out about this novel - begins with a death that shatters a young family. It's an arresting 15-page chapter in which Guy and his wife, Judy, are enjoying a lovely day with their daughter, Freya. Guy "knows even then, that he will want to hold on to this moment for the rest of his life," Page writes, "to be with her, in that wide sunny field in East Anglia, crouching by the horseradish plants." But then the scene of parental bliss is interrupted by an uncanny act of violence, surreal and terrifying, like a Grimm fairy tale imposed on an unsuspecting modern family.
The rest of this relatively short novel takes place five years later in the shadow of that tragedy, as Page marks out the peculiar but wholly believable trajectory of one man's grief and possible recovery. When we see Guy again, he's in his late 30s, living alone with "the unassailable truth that life has stopped but time has not." On an old Dutch barge called the Flood in the Blackwater estuary off Essex, he gives over his existence entirely to the rhythms of nature, a concession that seems idyllic but also suspiciously resigned: "The way the tide lifts your whole life up just to put it back down in the mud twice a day," Guy says, "that's wonderful, when you're asleep and you start to float - I really like that - it's like you drift away in every sense, from yourself."
What looks like a suicide attempt - swimming dangerously far away from his barge - may really be part of a brutal treatment regimen that he's designed for himself. "Floating this far away from the Flood, he feels disembodied," Page writes. "It gives him clarity. Clarity to view his last few years like a frayed rope, each strand of it working itself loose from the thing it had once been, each strand still with the curled shape of the life it was once part of. Now unsupported, weakened, unravelling."
He sets himself up with several more life-threatening challenges, and a good deal of the novel's muted suspense stems from these self-imposed ordeals, which may kill him or cleanse him - or drive him mad. Guy's plaintive calls to his daughter on the dark water of the North Sea are, frankly, almost too sad to endure, but they sound entirely true. Those of us doomed to see our young children killed or maimed endure a lifetime of nightmares, reenactments and merciless second-guessing. For years after my first daughter was severely brain damaged, I dreamed of her running toward me, a fantasy that always made me feel both elated and devastated in just the way Page describes.
Guy takes his only comfort from a diary in which "he's written every evening for the last five years, since his life changed irrevocably. And thinking this way, he's able to begin, knowing he can no longer imagine his days passing without doing it." But what initially sounds therapeutic is really a crippling, addictive fantasy: His diary is a minute re-creation of the life he and his wife would have led had their daughter lived, and as such it's a kind of a faux record, a painful demonstration of the layers of self-deception that grief pushes us to. His fictional experience with this now-make-believe family is "such a regular part of his routine it's been more real, at times, than the life they all had, when they were together."
Page is a sensitive, pensive writer, and he has endowed Guy with the same skill to compose this poignant story within the story. "It's a wonderful thing to write," Guy thinks. "You can reclaim the things you lost." But in practice, Guy is too talented for his own good: In the effort to describe his wife and daughter as accurately as possible, he ends up creating a fully dynamic set of characters who quickly veer away from his control and begin to enact the tensions that were already pulling on his family before Freya died. The compensations of fantasy seem destined to be overwhelmed by his own fidelity to the truth.
As introspective and painful as "Sea Change" is, it remains engaging and even surprising all the way to the end. Page knows enough about real grief to be aware that it follows no regular stages. Guy's drifting course across the sea takes him through troughs of despair and moments of transcendence, but it eventually leads him to something wholly undefined and evocative, perhaps the only possible destination after such a tragedy. This is a difficult book to recommend - a voyage into dark waters all of us want to avoid - but if something about the description resonates with you, seek it out; it won't lead you astray.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor. To see the Totally Hip Video Book Review of the best novels of 2010, go to wapo.st/totally-hip.