Moody. Atmospheric. Unforgettable. In this stunning debut from author Peter Geye, a father and son are reconciled — and laid open, bare, along the frozen shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota.
Noah Torr has long stood in the shadow of his father, Olaf, a Norwegian immigrant and barrel of a man who has spent his life and career aboard ships transporting cargo on Lake Superior. Like a man returning home from war, Olaf retreated inward and into bottles after surviving a terrible shipwreck that claimed the lives of nearly all his fellow crew. When Noah could escape from Misquah, Minn., he did — and married Natalie, the well-to-do go-getter who now approaches her infertility issues with the same fervency she does her work.
Awash in his own sea of indecisions and missteps, Noah isn’t expecting a call from his aging father. It’s been five years since they last saw each other, and their time together then was painful and brief. But Olaf, after decades, is finally in need of assistance. In a pained voice Noah can barely hear, he asks his only son to come home.
Peter Geye’s Safe From The Sea offers just what its lovely, cold cover suggests: a turbulent tale of a father’s love; a depiction of the emotional and physical landscapes that divide us from one another, then reunite us once more. Though emotionally difficult, it’s a book I savored and found over all too quickly.
From the moment I was introduced to Noah, I felt a strong affinity for him. It was obvious the years had taken their toll — just as they had on his father, a man I was determined to dislike but ultimately could not. Olaf — reticent; headstrong; self-sufficient — isn’t accustomed to asking anyone for anything. But in reaching his hand out to Noah, and doing it on his own terms, I felt I could accept and love him. Just like his children do.
In telling the story of the Torr family, Geye chooses each word carefully. Never once did the pacing falter; never once was I weighed down with detail, with too much superfluous information. We’re told what it is we need to know. Often, this irks me — I mean, how soft was a pillow? How bright was the light? How warm was a kiss, or comforting an embrace? But you know, in reading Safe From The Sea, it never occurred to me to think about what was missing. All I could do was feel grateful for all I was given.
Like Noah and Natalie’s relationship, for example. Loaded down with the stress of trying to start a family, the couple didn’t seem to realize that they already had: with each other. Watching their interactions move from strained to tender was very emotional, and I found any dislike I had for Natalie and her perceived selfishness melting away. Despite everything, they understood each other. They longed for each other. It was realistic and heartbreaking and wonderful.
Olaf’s story of the Ragnarøk — the gigantic ship he was aboard when it sank — was mesmerizing. In Geye’s capable hands, the Rag’s demise took on a mythical quality — not unlike its namesake, a series of “future events” foretold in Old Norse mythology. During Ragnarøk, the myth holds, the earth will sink into the sea before “resurfac[ing] anew and fertile.” While the crew floundered in a terrible snowstorm, I felt the wind whipping back my hair and stinging my eyes. The fear, turmoil and ultimate determination to live was Olaf’s story to share, and I loved that Geye let us hear it in his own words. And that, finally, he shared it with his son.
It’s been a long time since I found a book that so moved me — a book I couldn’t help talking about with friends and coworkers. My fourth read for the Indie Lit Awards, I didn’t expect to fall so in love with a novel set in a freezing landscape about a disjointed family — but that’s precisely what happened. I loved that it was so different from anything else I’ve read in recent months. I loved that I fell in love with the characters . . . even the difficult ones.
It was an easy story to love.
For readers interested in family sagas, maritime histories (boats! high seas!) or profound looks at fatherhood and love, look no further than Safe From The Sea. My heart won’t be the same again.
5 out of 5!