Like Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” books, Katy Simpson Smith’s first novel, “The Story of Land and Sea,” works to breathe life into history using the immediacy of the present tense. Its finely wrought (sometimes overwrought) language blends startling details of the everyday with a dreamy, aphoristic quality. The effect is to root the novel in its historical moment but to reach toward the universal in its exploration of love and grief.
Unlike Mantel’s trilogy, Smith’s book is slight in size and, at least superficially, in scope. It focuses on obscure characters in a shrinking world: a North Carolina coastal town whose commercial and social lives are dying as the Revolutionary War fizzles to peace and the new nation begins to push westward. At the center of the story is John, a rootless sailor-turned-soldier-turned-shopkeeper, who is raising his 10-year-old daughter and mourning the death of her mother, Helen, in childbirth. It then shifts back to tell the story of his romance with Helen, the outwardly obedient daughter of a local turpentine distiller who falls in love with him and runs away to sea.
The women of this family do not last long, fading away under fevers or labor. In his grief, John grows closer to Asa, his wife’s father, widowed in the same circumstances and struggling to understand the meaning of a life devoted to patriarchal wealth-building once a man is robbed of his heirs.
All the characters struggle, too, with God. One of the greatest strengths of this haunting novel is its depiction of religious searching: It does not assume that our devout forebears found comfort for their losses in blind faith. As a grandfather, Asa is coldly convinced of the rewards of virtue; in grief, his trust in God’s plan crumbles. Smith’s characters must compromise and contort their belief in order to make sense of their fortunes, whether good or ill. John, watching his daughter’s fever, cannot comprehend the promise of grace: “He only lives to wait for loss. Without believing in the God of salvation and forgiveness, he has faith in God the Punisher.”
The novel also makes clear that the moral outrage of slavery undermines this community’s potential for salvation. At age 10, Helen is given one of her father’s young slaves, Moll, and the tense relationship between the girls is one of the most powerfully drawn in this story of bonds slowly forged and rudely severed. Thinking themselves generous and pragmatic, young Helen and her father marry Moll off at age 16 to a stranger. They press on her small indulgences and a constant demand for sympathy and forgiveness, which Moll rejects with furious dignity. Her resistance is a reminder that the hopeful work of building this new nation is infected from the beginning by a poison at its core.
Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
The Story of Land and Sea
By Katy Simpson Smith,
Harper. 241 pp. $26.99