SEA CREATURES. By Susanna Daniel. Harper. 320 pages. $25.99.
There’s a charmer at the heart of “Sea Creatures,” and it’s not the novel’s narrator, Georgia, who is plenty likable in her own admittedly stumbling, searching way.
It’s her 3-year-old son, Frankie, whose refusal to talk has begun to weigh on Georgia’s marriage to the boy’s father, Graham. It weighs on the reader, too, as Frankie is recognizably bright, playful and inquisitive, but never quite ready to connect verbally.
This is Susanna Daniel’s second novel. Her first, “Stiltsville,” won the PEN/Bingham Prize for outstanding debut fiction. In “Sea Creatures,” she returns to the waters around Miami, including Stiltsville, the odd, somewhat forlorn outcropping of homes on pilings in Biscayne Bay.
It is an endearing, gripping second tour of this mesmerizing locale.
Almost like an action-filled, emotional memoir, the story is told by Georgia in a voice that can be beautifully descriptive. It can also be reflective, confessional with an edge: “When I thought what life would be like for Frankie in school and as an adult if he never started to talk, I felt a fist tighten around my heart.”
The novel opens as Georgia and Graham, with Frankie in tow, are leaving Illinois, where Graham failed to earn tenure at Northwestern. Their fallback is a two-year fellowship he received for atmospheric research at a Miami institute, allowing Georgia to go back to the city where she grew up.
They choose to live on a canal next to her father, a good man, a musician, who has remarried following the death of Georgia’s mother. While Graham does research, Georgia runs errands for the hermit Charlie, an artist who draws sea creatures at his Stiltsville house.
The struggle to get Frankie to speak unfolds along with Georgia’s own search for inner peace, if not love, which she is hard-pressed to find.
Georgia’s choices at times border on mistakes. The two men who figure most prominently in her life are both grappling with their own demons: Graham is a parasomniac with a fearsome case of sleepwalking, when he can sleep at all, and Charlie has fled the ordinary social world to live alone on the water after a life-changing personal loss.
Georgia has her troubles with sleep, and the novel is not just about the watery abyss below us but also the dark sea surrounding our nocturnal selves. Georgia and Graham decide to live on a houseboat he christens “Lullaby,” but the troubled couple is hardly being sung to sleep aboard it. Charlie offers a healing place of refuge for both Georgia and Frankie at Stiltsville, but his rambling house on pilings slapped by choppy waves can be the site of parental nightmares.
As the novel turns into its final, suspenseful chapters, the voice of Georgia is at times softly rocking, almost elegiac.
Of all the characters in her life, clearly the one she loves most of all is her mysteriously silent son, Frankie.