My initial response when I started to read Helen Mundler’s Three Days by the Sea (Holland House Books, 300 pages) was “Yes, we need more of this.” In addition to the interest of the story, the book serves as a reminder of the strengths of literary realism, at a time when for many readers, journalism and nonfiction have replaced the novel as a chronicle of lived experience.
This situation is the product of a changing culture but it’s also, I think, the fault of many novelists, who too often settle for what I’ve come to think of as “weather report realism.” In these novels, Plot X or Y occurs against a backdrop of dutiful descriptions of everyday life, a supposedly reliable accounting of facial expressions, brand names and what the weather was like that day.
Of course life is full of facial expressions and brand names and weather, but verisimilitude is not an end in itself. Saying as much is nothing new. Surely it’s what Willa Cather had in mind when she defended the novel démeublé. As a masterful realistic writer, she knew the risks of her chosen mode. An artist can faithfully render how life appears while neglecting how it feels. “How wonderful,” Cather observed, “it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window.”
In Three Days by the Sea, Mundler has chucked out many of the chairs. Consider, for instance, the following passage where a character named Gina muses on the difficulty of knowing other people in light of the struggle to know oneself:
“They smiled at each other a lot, like people who didn’t share a common language. But sometimes it was like being in a play where the scenery and costumes and actors were all set up but—sudden, nightmare lurch—somebody had forgotten to write the script. She was a dinner guest from Buñuel, abruptly and appallingly on stage.”
There is no reliable, consensual framework, a comfy place to sit. Mundler is neither a stripped-down minimalist—her prose is unhurried, she enjoys figurative language—nor does she resort to the “hysterical” manner ascribed by James Wood to writers like Pynchon and DeLillo who are at pains to insist (over and over, with amped up prose) that they have no truck with weather report realism.
Rather, Mundler seeks a different balance. In the above passage and throughout the novel, there is a keen appreciation of interiority. Get rid of some of the furniture, and shift the gaze elsewhere. What do you see? It’s for this access to a psychological dimension that literary realism still remains vital.
Structurally, Three Days by the Sea centers on a family reunion. Gordon and Janet Ellis, a teacher and therapist, host their adult children at a Cornwall resort. The eldest daughter Gina is a restless, striving achiever who works as an academic in France; the son Robert is a plodding misfit who grew up in Gina’s shadow and is now trying to make his way as a monk. Also present are Robert’s estranged French wife, Nadège, and their daughter Clara, who hasn’t seen her father in years. Missing from the reunion, however, is Gordon and Janet’s youngest daughter, Susie, who has refused direct contact with the family for many years. Where is she? No one knows, and her absence looms over the gathering. Sometimes Gina dreams that she is in prison.
“What could have gone so wrong? At one very basic level, the dream seemed to be about Susie being locked away, inaccessible, but it was also a dream which turned things around: in making herself inaccessible, in removing herself from them, it was her family Susie had put in prison. They were the ones serving out a sentence of indefinite duration.”
The narration moves back and forth from the present to the past, in a variety of settings, including England, France and the U.S., employing multiple points of view, to reveal secrets and deceptions among family members, as well as outright betrayals. Over the course of the family reunion, some of these secrets are brought to light.
In Mundler’s hands, the behavior of many characters, while often regrettable, makes perfect sense to the individual concerned. There is sympathy even as the narration pulls no punches. Janet is a qualified therapist who can be appallingly tone-deaf to others’ emotions. Gordon is a serious educator who is increasingly irrelevant in his chosen field. Their son Robert, the kindest character in the novel, is also the most ineffectual.
One memorable scene depicts a youthful Robert working at a doll factory in the Vosges, in eastern France. These dolls aren’t children’s toys or mannequins, as one might suppose, but life-size reproductions of real people, now deceased, which serve as companions to their grieving mates or family. In a scene which is both macabre and full of pathos, Robert explains his work performing maintenance on the dolls. Instead of beautifying or idealizing them, he uses photos of the deceased persons to assist his efforts to make the dolls look plausibly older, to reflect the passage of time. His sister Gina is flabbergasted.
“She was looking at the photos on the wall—she could not stop. These were chrome-framed, with ivory surrounds. If you’d called it a disturbing new exhibition and put it in the Musée d’Orsay or the Orangerie, people would’ve flocked, thought Gina. She was beginning to feel uncomfortable, also, in a different way: to suspect that this was how Robert must have felt, for so long, with her—being confronted with things he couldn’t imagine or handle.”
Another kind of writer might’ve lingered on the photos themselves or played up the creepiness of the dolls—that is, the externals—but here Mundler highlights instead a moment of emotional growth, within a character, who until now had regarded her brother more complacently. Again, interiority is where the action is.
Gordon, the father figure, is very sympathetically drawn and even achieves a measure of heroism, as he doggedly pushes back against misguided educational reforms in Britain. But this comes at a price, in his marriage, and ultimately his devotion to his work leaves him alienated and alone, even in his profession. Retirement is a stark affair.
“He said nothing about the settlement or about their plans, to these people who had been waiting for years now for them to leave. He had a sudden, sad sense that the world was waiting for them to die.”
Three Days by the Sea doesn’t end on that bleak note, but it refuses to tidy up the family’s problems. This is not a novel of easy resolutions. At the same time, it also evokes hope, and possibilities for renewal. Attune to the ironies of Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning,” which is alluded to in the text, it reminds us of the limits of the external gaze, how our interpreting others’ gestures is fraught with risk. On the other hand, sometimes people actually are waving, seeking connection. This absorbing, thoughtful novel chronicles the breadth of that experience.
–Charles Holdefer’s latest book is Don’t Look at Me