This unusual book reads like a fairytale but one set in a post-apocalyptic era. It is told from multiple points of view, but the main characters are females: Callanish, who is a “gracekeeper” administering burials at sea; North, who performs with a bear in the floating Circus Excalibur; and Avalon, the wife of the circus ringmaster.
In this world of the future, many former cities are underwater; the living are now divided between “damplings” who travel the world on boats, and “landlockers” (called “clams” by the damplings) who live on strings of islands. The two groups interact, but don’t like or trust one another.
The tension in the story arises from the struggle of each of the women to realize her desires. Avalon wants to become a landlocker and live in a real house. North wants to find a place she can live safely with her bear and with the baby she is carrying. Callanish wants forgiveness from her mother for an act that led to her isolation as a gracekeeper. When North and Callanish meet, they find they have more in common than either suspected, causing the thoughts of each increasingly to turn to the other.
Avalon’s desperation to make her dreams come true leads her to commit desperate acts, resulting in potential disaster for all the characters. They all stand to lose everything, or maybe, to find what they were looking for, if they can survive.
Discussion: The circus performers hide their true desires and feelings and even their genders, behind spectacle and illusion created from glittery make-up, painted colors, ribbons and tattoos and ghostly lighting. The alliterative and lyrical language matches the dreamy, mythical, performative content:
“Behind curtains the three clowns stamped to the beat in their metal-soled boots until the striped silk shuddered with the sound.”
It was never really clear to me how much of the relationship between North and her bear was metaphorical or allegorical; in some ways the book seems like a mash-up of Station Eleven and Life of Pi, or perhaps more aptly, the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red.
What happened to create this post-disaster world is only speculated about once by the characters, who were born into this world the way it was. And like the murky and mysterious cities under the water, most of the interior lives of the characters are hidden from each other, as well as the reader. How did they end up where they were? What do they do all day? What do they think about? In this magical reverie through a gossamer lens, the past hardly comes into play.
The dénouement is more suggestive than solid but for the most part satisfying, ending with a calm sea that is “silver bright, busy with worlds.”
Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House a Penguin Random House Company, 2015