Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

There are some books that are difficult to describe. They are notable for the feeling or impression they inspire in the reader. Katy Simpson Smith's The Story of Land and Sea is one of these books. When a bookstore owner and fellow reader friend of mine pressed the advanced copy of this book into my hands, she simply said, "This is set in North Carolina and you should read it." Normally she can discuss the heck out of why but this one seemed to stymie her. She just knew there was something about it that begged to be read even if she couldn't articulate that something. And she was right. And I find myself struggling to explain why I agree with her, but I certainly do.

The novel opens in 1793 with ten year old motherless Tabitha (Tab) living in a coastal Carolina town with her father John, not too far from her grandfather, her mother's father, Asa. Tab has been allowed to run fairly wild without a mother to guide her. She is drawn to the sea and the ships that bob in the harbor. She explores tidal pools, swims out to a sandbar, and lazes in the sun. She asks her father for tales of his life with her mother, Helen, before she died in childbirth bringing forth Tab. That they eloped on a pirate ship and lived simply and happily until they had to come back to land and make a life for their coming child fascinates her no end.  And these tales, hard as they are for John to articulate, are the only piece of her mother than Tab has.  Although Tab is often unsupervised, she is precious to her father and she is the last of her grandfather's blood. When she's stricken with yellow fever, John and Asa disagree with how to save her.  One trusting in God and the other a non-believer.  In the end, John takes her onto a ship, the same way he took Helen so many years ago, desperate for the sea to work its magic on his small daughter.

And then the novel jumps back in time to when Helen, a motherless young woman herself, lived alone with her father, Asa. She was certain of her faith, quite devout, and strove to teach the word of God to the local slaves, presiding over Sunday services for them. She had her own slave, Moll, gifted to her by her father when she was a small child herself, but with whom she had a rather strange and complicated relationship, by turns distant or intensely close, uncaring or needy. In the final year of the Revolutionary War, she meets John, a soldier posted in Beaufort and prefers him to the more acceptable suitor whom her father has chosen. And so begins the tale that Tab so loved to hear.

The third part of the story returns to 1793, to John and Asa and to the slave Moll and her much adored son Davy. Moll has always loved Davy beyond the daughters who followed him and yet she has even less control over his destiny than John or Asa had over their daughters. Moll's love for Davy is desperate and deep despite the fact that she cannot keep him with her when John and Asa decide otherwise.  And she is willing to risk all for love of him.

Each of the three sections of the novel focuses on a parent and child, the connection between them, the overwhelming love, and the ways in which a parent does not, perhaps cannot, know his or her child's heart. In all three cases there is an trace, sometimes faint and others times not so faint, of a possessiveness about that love, a feeling that the child belongs to the parent. And yet life proves this possessiveness to be ephemeral in all cases. The characters here are almost all adrift in life without a real course. They seem solitary even in their connections with each other. The writing is rich, beautiful, and fluid and the general feel of the novel is elegant, dreamy, and haunting right from the start. It is an overwhelmingly sad story of loss after loss and melancholy threads through all three parts of the tale. The three parts are not arranged chronologically, allowing Smith to use the middle portion of her triptych as a respite from the unexpected plot trajectory of the first part, allowing the reader to process that deliberate authorial choice before moving forward with the tale. An elegiac, lyrical story, it will hover in your consciousness a long time after you close the cover.

For more information about Katy Simpson Smith and the book, check out her website. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I have a galley of this but haven't read it yet. Thanks for providing such a detailed review! I only had a vague idea of what this book is about, but it sounds excellent. Can't wait to read it!

  2. The unusual chronology of the book is intriguing. I'm exciting to read this one myself and see how everything comes together.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts