Stunning, hypnotic, spare, The Seal Wife is the masterly new novel by Kathryn Harrison, "a writer of extraordinary gifts" (Tobias Wolff). Set in Alaska in 1915, it tells the story of a young scientist's consuming love for a woman known as the Aleut, a woman who never speaks, who refuses to reveal so much as her name.
Born and educated in midwestern cities, Bigelow is sent north by the United States government to establish a weather observatory in Anchorage. But what could have prepared him for the loneliness of a railroad town with more than two thousand men and only a handful of women, or for winter nights twenty hours long? And what can protect him from obsession--obsession with a woman who seems in her silence and mystery to possess the power to destroy his life forever, and obsession with the weather kite he invents, a kite he hopes will fly higher than any has ever flown before and will penetrate the secrets of the heavens?
A novel of passions both dangerous and generative, The Seal Wife explores the nature of desire and its ability to propel an individual beyond himself and convention. As she brilliantly reimagines the terrain of the Alaskan frontier during the period of the First World War, Harrison, a "master of her material" (Mary Gordon), also evokes early efforts to chart the weather and reveals the interior realm of the psyche and emotions--a human landscape that, in its splendor and terror, is profoundly and eerily reminiscent of the frozen frontier and the storms that scour its face.
Obsessions are Harrison's forte (The Binding Chair, etc.) and here she plumbs the mind of a young man deprived of companions, diversions and even the basic amenities of civilization who develops a passion for a woman whose very remoteness feeds his desire. In 1915, 26-year-old Bigelow Greene is sent to establish a U.S. weather station in Anchorage, a primitive settlement where the sled dogs howl all night in the 20-hour-long winter darkness. Bigelow is asingle-minded man; he first becomes obsessed with the idea of building a huge kite to measure air temperature high in the atmosphere and thus enable long-range forecasting. But he's soon smitten with a woman the locals call the Aleut. She's mysterious, enigmatic, virtually mute sex between she and Bigelow is wordless and when he discovers that she's left Anchorage, Bigelow almost goes mad with longing. Eventually, he succumbs to the lure of another woman, Miriam Getz, the daughter of the storekeeper. She, too, is mute by choice, and she proves to be a demon, the very opposite of the self-contained Aleut. Bigelow is caught in her trap. As Harrison describes the black loneliness of winter and the mosquito-infested summer days, the mood grows darker and more suspenseful, emblematic of Bigelow's desolate psyche. In perfect control of the spare narrative, Harrison writes mesmerizing, cinematically vivid scenes: Native American laborers fascinated by Caruso recordings; the gigantic kite nearly dragging Bigelow to his death off a cliff and, later, soaring into the turbulent sky of a rousing storm. Given these ominous events, and for those who know the Celtic legend of the seal wife, the ending is all the more surprising. Author tour. (May)Forecast: Harrison's excellently assimilated research about the early days of weather forecasting and about the conditions in Alaska during WWI add credibility to a novel about the inner landscape of desire. This double appeal should spark good sales.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 12, 2003
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Excerpt from The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison
HE IS TWENTY-SIX, and for as long as he's lived in the north there has been only the Aleut woman. Several evenings a week he comes to her door with a duck or a rabbit and she asks him in. Not asks, exactly. She opens the door and steps aside so he can enter.
She lives in a frame house hammered together fast out of boards and tar paper, a house like all the others in Anchorage, except it isn't on First or Fourth or even Ninth Street; instead it is off to the east, marooned on the mud flats. But she has things in it, like anyone else, a table and two chairs, flour and tea on a shelf, a hat hanging from a peg. She wears a dress with buttons and she cooks at a stove, and the two of them eat before, and then after she sits cross-legged in the tub and smokes her pipe.
She smokes, and he watches her smoke. He thinks her mouth may be the most beautiful part of her--not red, not brown or mauve or pink, but a color for which he has no name. Her top lip is finely drawn, almost stern; the bottom one is plump, with a crease in the center. On another face its fullness might be considered a pout, but her black eyes convey none of the disappointment, nor the invitation, of such an expression.
She is the only woman who has allowed him to watch her as intently, as much and as long, as he wants, and the reason for this comes to him one night. She is self-possessed. There is nothing he can take from her by looking.
At the thought, he gets up from the bed and goes to the window, he rests his forehead on its cold pane. She possesses herself. How much more this makes him want her!
Then, one day, it's over: she won't open her door to him.
He knocks, he rattles the knob. "Please," he says, his mouth against the crack. "Open up. It's me." With his hands cupped around his eyes, he peers through the window and there she is, sitting at the table, staring at the wall.
He knocks on the glass and holds up his rabbit, but she doesn't turn her head. Even after he's walked the entire peri- meter of the two-room house, hitting the boards with the heel of his hand, even after that, when he looks in the window, he sees her still sitting there, not moving. He leaves his dead rabbit on the ground and goes back the way he came, trudging past the railroad yard and the new bunkhouse, the sawmill with its chained curs lunging and snapping after his shadow. What. He thinks the word over and over. There must be some explanation. But what?
It's June, eleven o'clock at night and bright as morning. The usually gray water of the inlet is purple, gold where the light touches it, a low skein of cirrus unraveling on the horizon. Beyond the trampled mud of the streets are wildflowers growing everywhere, flowers of all colors, red fireweed, yellow broom, blue aster. He picks them as he walks. Preoccupied, he yanks at them, and some come up roots and all. After smelling their bright heads, he drops them, and by the time he retraces his path their petals have withered.
Has he done something to offend her? In his mind he reviews his last visit with the woman. He brought her a duck, a good-size one, and a bolt of netting to protect her bed. Surely there was nothing wrong in that. He can't stand being bitten by mosquitoes, and he hates for the two of them to have to leave their clothing on. Every hour he's not with her is one spent waiting to see her, the more of her the better. She has the sloping shoulders characteristic of her people; breasts that are small and pointed, like two halves of a yam set side by side; three black lines tattooed on her chin; and smooth, bowed legs. She, he calls her to himself, because he hasn't presumed to name her, not even privately. Her hair is long and black, a mare's tail, and once, when he began to unbraid it, she took it from his hands. By some accident of biology her navel turned out a perfect spiral, and he's fought off her hands to kiss her in that place.
Her body seems young to him, as young as his own, as strong and unmarked. But her eyes make him wonder.
There's no point in asking her age, because she doesn't understand English, nor any of the pidgin phrases he's taught himself and tried to say.
Or perhaps she does know the meaning of his words but is unwilling to betray her knowledge--herself--to him.
Whether she understood him or not, the woman's silence did not stop him from talking; it provoked him, and he spoke more volubly to her than he had to anyone else, more than he might to a person who answered. His father was dead, he told her, and his mother and sister ran a boardinghouse in St. Louis. He'd lived in three cities so far: St. Louis, where he was born; Chicago, where he attended the university and earned a degree in mathematics; and Seattle, where he worked for two years as an observer for the Weather Bureau. Well, Seattle wasn't much of a city, he guessed, shaking his head. But compared to Anchorage.