Pros: Beautiful prose-poetry; an astounding empathy; great courage
Cons: It helps to have a decent history & literature background
Rating: 5 out of 5
I’m slightly at a loss when it comes to reviewing Mathias B. Freese’s Down to a Sunless Sea. The author is a psychotherapist and teacher, and he has produced a remarkable book of short stories that, frankly, feels beyond my ability to adequately review. I’ll try to get a few of my thoughts about it on paper, and hopefully they’ll be able to help you figure out if you’d be interested in reading Down to a Sunless Sea.
This is a very literary book—the words curl in and out in a sort of prose poetry, and I know there were historical and literary references I didn’t catch. It is this without being elitist or pompous in the way that some literary pieces can be; there’s no sense of the author trying to stump or impress the reader with his base of knowledge. He includes what’s relevant and necessary to his pieces and that’s all.
Unlike many short story collections by a single author, this one varies dramatically from piece to piece. Each one is told in a voice appropriate to its subject, whether that’s a barely literate high schooler scornful of his English teacher or the inner chatter of an obsessive-compulsive.
What ties these stories together is Freese’s remarkable empathy, his astonishing ability to get inside the heads of his characters and simply present them as who they are, show the world from their eyes without any outside judgments clouding the issue. A young man with a lame arm and foot (he’s named them Ralph and Lon) swears and speaks frankly about everything from masturbation to the way he talks. A sighting of a bear in a rural community serves as a lesson in fear and normalcy. An old woman’s chat with a boy on a bench one evening is a heart-breaking look at what it can mean to live life after a concentration camp. Several stories touch on the Holocaust from various directions, while others examine the everyday slings and arrows that leave their marks—for good or ill—on our psyches.
These are fascinating stories, and I don’t know how to adequately express how worthwhile they are. I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a book before, but I feel privileged to have read this collection.
“When I was a little girl not much older than you, I had the most beautiful arms. They were like alabaster. Do you know what alabaster is?…I suppose not, little boy. Anyway, child, I had a lovely presence, or so I learned from my parents. My mother said I glowed from within, like ivory. Alabaster, my child. My father—he’d been dead a long time—called me his Grecian girl, Ionic. You know what Ionic means?…How could you, little boy?
“A darkness came. It was not a fairy tale darkness. My beautiful arms were draped in shadow, and the Grecian urn shattered. Do you know what it is to be broken, in pieces, my child?…I suppose not. How could you?” —from ‘Alabaster’