Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is an anthology of short fiction from an imaginary North Atlantic island, Sanjania, spanning much of the island’s history and examining various aspects of its culture and development.
The island once had indigenous occupants, who survived long enough to produce petroglyphs but died out before more modern settlers arrived (conveniently sidestepping issues of colonialism, in a way that felt a little too neat). Its first settlers were shipwreck survivors of a slaver vessel, which contributed to the islanders’ often non-white skin tone; “black” and “amber” are used to describe two different characters’ skin, while a racist British woman talks of the island being full of “darkies”. This choice I rather liked; the islanders’ race is not commented on too often, being just a fact of life, yet Marche could just have easily made everyone white as default. The British later claimed the island as a colony; in the mid 20th Century it won independence, suffered a dictatorial first government then settled down into a more tolerant political climate.
This history is part of the stories; they’re organised into sections called ‘The Pamphlets and Early Fictioneers’, ‘Upheavels and Independence’ and ‘Exile and Return’, followed by a section of fake lit-crit that adds interesting layers to some of the stories preceding it.
The way some of the stories refer to the history is sometimes skillfully handled, sometimes not. “An Old Man Mourns for His Blind Daughter” allegorises the post-independence government, while one of the lit-crit articles points to a Biblical quote hidden in one paragraph. I find most allegorical work uninteresting on the surface and unsubtle in its main objective, and this story fit that description perfectly; to have this followed by an article explaining how oh-so-clever this story really is made my eyes roll at great speed.
This is not the only unimaginative story about the political crises surrounding independence. “Ultimate Testament” is the final will of a political prisoner, who owns only his rags, his beaten body and his “love of country, good as mint”. I did, however, like “To Be Read At The Hour of Independence”, which struck me as borderline cynical when compared to the prelude’s assertion that it “captures the euphoria at the dawn of self-rule”: the world before independence contains “mud, and bones on the bottom of the sea, and out-of-date fashions and dry riverbeds and the flightless Sanjan swallow”, while the representative of the future can only offer “a murky outline, an impossibility … mud, marriage, the conversation and trade … More ships arrive, more plague, and more bones litter the sea bottom, and more shipwreck survivors tie their lives to the stable flotsam of this island”. There’s a recognition of continuity from one regime to the next that’s quite honest and open-eyed, not at all euphoric.
Other stories examine the reactions of exiles and expats abroad, most of them in a similarly un-complex manner.
Far more successful are the stories that delve into cove culture. See, the island’s shore is full of little coves where people settled and lived very insular lives, leading to a wide range of customs and dialects. This absolutely fascinated me. Several stories employ the linguistic quirks of the coves, especially “Professor Saintfrancis and the Diamants at the End of the World”, a mystery piece full of quirky compound words like “tonguerag” (gossip) and “soupmist” (mystery/confusion) and various other alterations to standard English that crop up, to a lesser extent, in many other stories; “Men” prefers the approach of dropping a lot of letters, handled pretty decently as these things go.
Elsewhere are details of cove culture. “Pigeon Blackhat” is a fairly unsurprising story of a girl from a cove village who flees her small-horizoned life for the big city, eventually succumbs to debt and turns to prostitution. “Under the Skin” mentions (but sadly doesn’t spend more than a paragraph or two describing) the tattoos of the sailors. “The End of the Beach” is a woman recalling what the titular part of the beach meant to her, back in her cove village, as she’s now living in Paris. “The Master’s Dog” is another of the more boring stories, about a manservant who returns home to find that his girlfriend married his best friend, while his employer argues with her un-interested husband – but at one point the manservant narrates:
In Port Hope, when strangers asked him for his cove of origin, a unique pleasure had always warmed his heart when he could name Jacks, an interior town. His countrymen, almost absolutely coastal by nature, were amazed that he had never learned to swim, and possessed no strong feelings about the construction or maintenance of vessels.
It’s a shame the rest of the story is not as interesting as this cultural glimpse.
“A Wedding in Restitution” is the best for this, as it describes the ceremonies surrounding a cove wedding. It also contains the strongest elements of the fantastic, with the miracles surrounding the two lovers’ christenings and wedding: Caesar upended a bottle of brandy and it poured continuously, while Endurance’s skin was covered in a star-map, miracles that led to forced childhood labour until at adolescence the miracles ended, only to recur briefly on the wedding day; in the hasty preparations for the wedding, a fish the size of a boat is believed to sacrifice itself for the wedding feast, leaping into the fisherman’s boat and letting itself be brought to harbour. The wedding is hastily prepared for, because each village lacks its own priest; instead, a priest circumnavigates the island, doing his work from cove to cove. And, after the wedding, it is a cove custom to put the couple in a boat and float them out to sea, with luck determining whether they’ll return and get to actually enjoy their married life.
It would have been better yet to have more focus on Caesar and Endurance themselve, rather than the village as a whole. The glimpses we get of Endurance’s character, as the only female sailor in the cove, are great.
This story is also an example of how the Criticism section at the back comes into play, as two reviews of the film adaptation of the story – one Sanjanian and one from New York – provide quite differing opinions. The former points out that certain customs are not unique to this one cove, that the constant employment of its fishermen is unrealistic, and so on.
While sometimes falling flat on its own attempted cleverness, the Criticism section provides information about some of the “authors” and the island’ history, and is sometimes good fun.
The development of literature on Sanjania is sometimes interesting in itself. As with the circumnavigating priest, early literature in the form of pamphlets was brought on circumnavigating ships. Reading is highly appreciated on Sanjania; according to the foreword, “Bookstalls are as common as fruit stands, the theatres around Saint Magdalene’s Square dwarf the City Hall, and on Sanjair flights the stewards push small carts of books down the aisle after the beverages and pretzels.” The preface later derides tourists who find this exotic while knowing nothing of Sanjanian literature’s history. There was, for instance, one literary movement that aimed to iron out the differences in cove tongues by arriving at a lingua franca – disappointingly, just plain Queen’s English, not something especially Sanjanian, and the example given of this style is not an exciting piece – while later authors rebelled against this.
Taken as individual works divorced of their various contexts, the stories vary widely in quality. A lot of them are mundane, interesting for glimpses of imagined culture but otherwise unremarkable. The prelude talks of “An Interlude at the Opera” being full of “atmosphere and luxurious setting”, making me wonder if Marche included the wrong draft in his final submission. Fortunately, there are gems: I really enjoyed “A Wedding in Restitution” and the opening story “The Destruction of Marlyebone, the Private King”, that’s semi-folkloric; another favourite, “Two Stories About the Abandon Tree”, is a micro-piece about the lightning-struck death of a tree important to a cove village, contrasting an objective newspaper article about the events with the author’s reaction.
Green leaves unfurled their living flags, green leaves without a country. When past seasons passed, when buds struggled on the bone branches, or withered on the stem, everyone in Marginal Cove brought a substitute ornament. The Abandon Tree at the mouth of the sea uttered a different word each day to the men in vessels piercing the impossible ocean. What the women understood is not for our ears.
Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is an ingenious approach to the depiction of a fictional culture – but it doesn’t go far enough. Many of the stories are indistinguishable from British or North American literary work; where the stories focus on the cove culture, unique to Sanjania, is where the book shines, but these stories are too few. Stephen Marche’s great ambition sadly falls a bit short.