Not long after we're introduced to John, the protagonist of Katy Simpson Smith's The Story of Land and Sea, he's reflecting on the loss of his wife, who died in childbirth several years ago. John is a former sailor on pirate ships who gave up the privateer's life to take care of his daughter, Tabitha. "The grief, besides, has waned to washes of melancholy," Smith writes, "impressions connected to no specific hurt but to the awareness of a constant. He is in no pain but the pain of the living."
It's a dark sentiment, not too far removed from William Goldman's famous line from The Princess Bride: "Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Almost all of the characters in The Story of Land and Sea are in a constant state of suffering, from disease, war, grief, enslavement and other tragedies. Optimists, beware: There is no light at all in this unceasingly bleak world.
Katy Simpson Smith's debut novel, told in three parts, begins with John raising Tabitha in the coastal town of Beaufort, N.C., in the years just after the American Revolution. John has traded the sea life for one on land; he runs a store, and answers Tabitha's endless questions about his life as a pirate. When Tabitha comes down with yellow fever, John plans to take her to Bermuda, hoping to save her.
The second part is a flashback, telling the story of John's wife, Helen, raised by a devoted single father. Plantation owner Asa dotes on his daughter and gives her a slave of her own, a young woman named Moll. When Helen decides to marry John and live with him on a pirate ship, Asa's heart breaks. As for the third part, it's nearly impossible to describe without spoiling some important plot points, but it also follows John and Asa after the Revolution.
The structure of The Story of Land and Sea isn't confusing, exactly, but it doesn't make that much sense. It's perhaps meant to point up the parallels between Helen and Tabitha, and John and Asa — which it does, but to what end? Smith doesn't seem to trust readers to make connections, which makes for occasionally heavy-handed prose when subtlety would have been a better option.
That's not unusual for a first-time novelist. Neither are the occasional overwritten passages, like Asa mourning his wife: "There is a searing in the body's innards that never leaves; it's the thumbprint of the beloved, and its formlessness does not diminish its endurance." It's a beautiful sentiment; it's also florid and a little unclear.
And it's frustrating, because Smith is clearly capable of so much more. She's at her best when she's self-assured and not trying too hard. When she writes about Tabitha, for example, her prose is charming, sharp and clever: "She is ten years old, of an age when the wicked are the heroes. She has outgrown tales of moral children."
It's not a perfect novel, but it is a good one. Smith is obviously a deeply intelligent writer, and she has a real gift for describing both hope and despair, which is one of the hardest things for an author to do well. She's also gifted at drawing realistic, three-dimensional characters, particularly Tabitha and her grandfather Asa (John and Helen, unfortunately, aren't as well-rounded). The Story of Land and Sea is flawed, but it's a respectable effort, and Katy Simpson Smith is absolutely a writer to watch.