Down to a Sunless Sea, by Mathias B. Freese
Publication Date: 2007
Format: Trade Paperback, 134 pages
Down to a Sunless Sea is a collection of stories about people who are at worst suffering from some defined or undefined mental illness and at best have a grim outlook on life.
Reading short stories is very different from reading novels, and as I hadn’t read any short stories in a while this collection was quite startling. Novels give you a chance to get the lay of the land and you slowly come to realizations about the characters as they unfold not all at once, but over several chapters. Short stories plunge you right into the heart of the action, and in this book that is right into the minds of some seriously unbalanced people and their often grim experiences and/or outlooks on life. These differences definitely colored my reading of the stories in the first half of the collection as I struggled to find my balance in territory I hadn’t explored in a while. Still I didn’t get the point of a lot of these stories and it made me start to think about what is the point of short stories or any stories at all. I think all writing fiction, short stories and novels, when they are successful, convey at the very least how things affect people or other things. I’m not quite sure I got that here. I felt as if I were reading a bunch of vignettes or characters sketches in someone’s writing notebook.
The characters are a strange bunch. I didn’t like any of them but I didn’t dislike any of them either. They just were. There were moments when I caught a glimpse of ways I have felt and reacted to things, albeit to a different degree. Little Errands, one of the best pieces for me, details the neurotic and obsessive-compulsive behavior of an unnamed narrator who is trying to run errands and mail letters, and having a very frustrating time of the experience, which unfortunately is their way of life. Fortunately for me I can have my little moments of neuroticism and infrequent OCD behavior and just call it a bad mood or a bad day. Insanity is in degrees and as with most things in life usually just a few steps away.
There was a little moment that resonated with me. It was brought into focus from the unformed knowingness in the back of my mind with this sentence:
I definitely have some people in my life that have defined periods of time for me and who I was then.
Some stories that stood out for me were The Chatham Bear, Little Errands and Nicholas (and this one probably because the pov was so different than the rest of the book, it was more interesting for the misspellings and grammar of the character). The tone of the first story was dreary and it remained relentlessly so throughout all the stories. No bright spots here. I worked through them slowly over a couple of weeks as they were hard to pick back up once I had put them down. If you’re looking for light or upbeat read, I think the title says it all.
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