Book Review: Seahorse
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The seahorse is a strange creature. The real thing, that is, the common name for the “54 species of marine fish in the genus Hippocampus”, according to Wikipedia. It’s another matter entirely that “hippocampus” itself is a derivative of the Greek hippo (horse) camps (sea-monster), frequently depicted as half-horse and half-fish, a winged creature (most famously at the Trevi Fountain in Rome), a fleet-footed steed of Poseidon, the Greek god of the ocean. Almost as fantastic as its mythical counterparts, the marine creature that is the seahorse can swim only vertically, denied a tail fin that allows other fish to negotiate their way horizontally. Consequently, they like to linger in comfortable spots, “their prehensile tails”, says Wikipedia again, “wound around a stationary object”.
What does all this have to do with Janice Pariat’s rather wonderful debut novel Seahorse? Nothing, really. And everything. Seahorse, you see, is, at one level, a contemporary retelling of Poseidon’s all-consuming passion for the beautiful Pelops, renewed in a celestial cauldron after his father Tantalus served him up in a banquet for Zeus and other gods. At another, it is a story of the stationary seahorse, the first-person narrator Nehemiah aka Nem, named after the biblical builder of new worlds, in search of the place—and the person—to which he can tether himself.
And yet, rare would be the reader who would not think he or she is the one actually struggling to stay afloat while reading Seahorse, so seductive is the pool of words Pariat creates; so intuitive are her insights into love and loss, betrayal and bewilderment, compromise and compassion, that one gasps for air, recognizing past selves and histories.
One fine day, Nicholas had upped and disappeared from their discreet idyll in a borrowed bungalow on Rajpur Road in old Delhi, leaving no sign of his existence except a jade figurine. But Nem is irrevocably changed: The gauche young boy from a North-Eastern town has developed a predilection for fine whisky, for classical Western music and art, and a penchant for seeking answers, in much the same manner as Nicholas, who had been drawn to India by his fascination for Ananda, a leading—yet curiously uncelebrated—disciple of the Buddha.
“We are shaped by absence,” Nem observes in only the fourth page of the novel. For all the coupling and uncoupling through the novel—including some fabulously erotic descriptions of homosexual lovemaking—the essential solitariness of the soul is a theme that crops up repeatedly in Seahorse. It may be peopled by a bright, buzzing cast of characters, especially in the section set in London, where Nem’s decade-long quest inevitably takes him, a reversal of Nicholas’ flight many years ago; sexual identities and liaisons may be fluid and almost conveniently bisexual, yet relationships are terribly hard to forge, and even harder to forget.
It’s appropriate then that the book is scattered with references to glass, mirrors, lakes, oceans and waterbodies that encourage reflection. Consider this startling passage as Nem hurtles towards northern England through a wintry countryside: “Time, I’ve often thought, could easily be captured inside a moving train. When the natural light outside has faded until it is even with the artificial light inside. And a passenger, looking at the window, sees two images at once. The dim landscape rushing past and the interior of the carriage, reflected with its motionless occupants. Moving and still. All at once.”
And again, a few pages later, at an exhibition of steel mirror paintings: “...I thought of how they inhabit the same, and different words entirely, one perpetually in the state of becoming the other. Yet there is a moment, in the split second when you lift a finger to the mirror when they touch, and are inexplicably identical.”
Philosophical without being ponderous, erudite without being show-offish and unapologetically immersive, Seahorse affirms what Boats On Land had announced: Pariat is a major talent. This is a book to savour at leisure, keeping the world at bay.
For an excerpt from the book, click here