Safe from the Sea
by Peter Geye
Unbridled Books, September 2010
My copy: Advance Review Copy (signed by the author)
This morning, I weeded all of the untouched ARCs from 2010 out of my library with the intention of purging my shelves before beginning on 2011 titles. BUT… when I ran across Safe From the Sea, I was reminded of how intrigued I had been by this title when the folks at Unbridled Books first sent it to me. I grew up on the shores of the Great Lakes and for that reason, this book caught my eye. (Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t noticed that Peter Geye signed it for me until I looked at it again this morning!) And so I found myself curled up in my favorite leather club chair today, with outdated review copies scattered all around me, reading Safe From the Sea while my kids played in the other room. And I finished it in a single sitting.
The Synopsis (from IndieBound): SAFE FROM THE SEA tells the story of Olaf and Noah Torr, a father and son whose long estrangement began after Olaf survived a shipwreck on Lake Superior. More than thirty years after the wreck, Olaf believes he is dying of cancer and asks his son to come home to his isolated cabin on the lake in order to help him die. Over the course of two weeks in November, against the backdrop of the dramatic upper Midwest landscape and weather, the men reconsider each other’s lives, finally summoning the courage to confess, understand and forgive.
Noah’s father finally tells his son for the first time the harrowing account of the wreck of Olaf’s ore boat, the SS Ragnark, a horrible secret from that night, and the survivor’s guilt that has dogged Olaf ever since and caused him to abandon his family. Noah’s own struggle to make a life with an absent father finds its real reward in his relationship with his sagacious wife, Natalie, whose complications with infertility issues mark her husband’s life in ways he only fully understands as the reconciliation with his father takes shape.
The Review: It has been quite a while since a book has captured my interest thoroughly enough that I finished it in a single sitting. But Safe From the Sea was the perfect tonic for a quiet, snowy day at home. Even more impressive is the fact that this is Geye’s debut novel!
Safe From the Sea focuses on father and son, Olaf and Noah Torr. After decades apart and 5 years of complete estrangement (Noah describes himself as “half an orphan”), Noah feels duty-bound to go to his father after receiving a call from Olaf, saying that he is sick and needs help preparing for winter. So in spite of difficult timing and bitter resistance from his wife (Noah and his wife are trying to conceive), Noah immediately goes to his father’s aid. And so begins this story… one that revisits a shipping tragedy on Lake Superior, the nature of a family’s drift in the wake of that accident, a previously untold secret from the tragedy, and the slow repair of Noah and Olaf’s relationship. Safe From the Sea is a thoroughly character-driven novel with Noah and Olaf at its center… both are sympathetic, interesting and utterly believable. This is far and away the best tale of family reconciliation that I’ve read. The interplay between the characters and the subtleties of their relationships are brilliantly written.
The story unfolds from two primary sources: from Noah and Olaf’s interactions and conversations in their final days together and from Olaf’s remembrances of the night that the Ragnarok sank. Both settings are clearly and vividly drawn, from the remote beauty of the Minnesota wilderness to the raw, frigid misery on the open waters of Lake Superior in a winter storm. Geye’s greatest strength lies in the drawing of those scenes and his obvious understanding of Great Lakes shipping history.
The only flaw in Safe From the Sea (and it’s a subtle one) lies in a plot that tends to lag a little from time to time. I had to fight the urge to ‘skim’ once or twice in the name of getting things moving again. The dialogue occasionally feels forced and I had a hard time with the story when Noah’s sister visited, since there didn’t seem to be a satisfactory explanation for the awkwardness of the interactions or for the events of that visit. That was in stark contrast to the perfectly drawn relationships between all of the other characters at all other times in the book.
Those flaws aside, I am so relieved that I sat down with this book rather than tossing it unopened into the “purge pile.” Safe From the Sea is a fine contribution to the ongoing standard of excellence that I’ve come to expect from Unbridled Books. Now on that note… I’m off to see about renewing my Unbridled Books subscription for 2011. I don’t want to miss a thing!
The Bottom Line: One of the best books I’ve read in 2010. Highly recommended.
This review originally appeared on The Lit Witch: A Book Blog.