Told by four women whose stories nest together, She Never Told Me About the Ocean is an epic about a rite of passage that all humans undergo and none remember: birth.
Eighteen-year-old Sage has been mothering her mother for as long as she can remember, and as she arrives on the shores of adulthood, she learns a secret: before she was born, she had an older brother who drowned.
In her search to discover who he was and why nobody told her, Sage moves to tiny Dragon Island where her mother grew up. There she embarks on a quest to learn the superstitions of the island, especially its myths involving her mother. Gathering stories from Ilya, a legendary midwife who hires Sage as her apprentice; Marella, Sage’s grieving mother who was named for the ocean yet has always been afraid of it; and Charon, the Underworld ferrywoman who delivers souls to the land of the dead, Sage learns to stop rescuing her mother and simply let go. But when her skill as Ilya’s apprentice enables her to rescue her mother one final time, in a way that means life or death, Sage must shed her
inherited fears and become her own woman.
Firstly let me say that I loved this book. Every word, every phrase, every brilliant moment. It has gone to the top of my favourite books of the year.
It is also a book very close to my heart. Like Sage I mothered my own mother from a teenager until her death which was three days before my fortieth birthday. Like Marella, my mother lost a child at a year and a half (though due to tuberculosis). She was soon pregnant with my brother and then me. Her anxiety surrounding our welfare amongst other things became all consuming, leaving her living in fear, and leaving me, like Sage, with her inherited fears.
She Never Told Me About the Ocean is a work of magical realism – I didn’t realise to what extent when I started it. There were touches of the mystical beauty I have only ever found in the books of Alice Hoffman (not so much Practical Magic which is the best known as it was made into a Hollywood film) but in others such as The World That We Knew, Faithful, Blackbird House and she is my favourite writer ever. This is the biggest compliment I could pay any author.
When Sage’s beloved Nana is dying she decides to go to the strange Dragon Island to say goodbye, virtually dragging Marella with her. Sage is overwhelmingly distraught. Together with her father George, they stay at Nana’s huge, rambling house where they sort out her things and prepare for the funeral. Though Nana always stayed to look after Sage when George was away at sea (my grandmother had to look after me and my brother when my mother became unable to do so), none of them have been to Dragon Island since Sage was born.
The days turn to weeks, George is once more away at sea, the two women are still living at the house and Sage meets Ilya the midwife, who takes her on as her apprentice. We also hear from Charon the ferry-woman, who takes souls across the river to the Underworld. But in this story, the Underworld is accessible to living humans, who can make a bargain to bring back a departed loved one in exchange for years of work when their time comes.
But what happens in this book is almost secondary to the thoughts and philosophy behind it. This is a book about mothers and motherhood, about unbreakable bonds and the love we have for our children and our parents regardless of time, distance or conflict. I cannot praise it enough. It made me revisit my life and my childhood and the meaning of everything I believe in. I know that sounds pretentiously profound, but if you read She Never Told Me About the Ocean – please do – you will hopefully understand what I mean.
Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours.
About the Author
Elisabeth Sharp McKetta grew up in Austin, Texas. She holds literature degrees from Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Texas at Austin and teaches writing for the Harvard Extension School and the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. She is the author of eight books: We Live in Boise, Energy: The Life of John J. McKetta Jr., Fear of the Deep, Fear of the Beast, Poetry for Strangers Vols. I and II, The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers, and The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell. She Never Told Me About the Ocean is her first novel.