A review of The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The Glass Ocean
by Lori Baker
Penguin
ISBN 978-1-59420-536-1, $25.95 US hc

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged,” said Virginia Woolf, “Life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Woolf’s approach to fiction was descriptive, poetic and evocative. In The Glass Ocean, set in 1940s England, Lori Baker writes in the modernist style of Woolf and James Joyce rather than in the realistic, linear mode of Victorians like Dickens, the Brontes and Hardy.

Some readers will happily float along in luminous haloes and waft along on waves of description. Other readers fear drowning in imagery, and prefer a more straightforward approach and a brisk pace. The Glass Ocean gets off to a confusing start, partly because of its impressionistic presentation, also because the reader must sort out that there are two wives in the novel who leave their husbands and two daughters who grow up close to their fathers.

The Glass Ocean is a daughter’s exploration of her parents’ unhappy marriage.

“They couldn’t help themselves, my parents,” says Carlotta, “nor could anyone else have helped them – they were, like all of us each in our own way, doomed from the start, just by being who they were…”

This sentence, from Page 3, continues as a 16-line paragraph which sums up the plot. The remaining 333 pages depict the parents living in two solitudes, but leave us more or less where we were on Pages 2 and 3. The novel begins with the narrator, Carlotta Dell’oro, a strapping eighteen year old, sitting surrounded by her father’s diaries, drawings and letters, imagining her parents’ lives before her birth and trying to understand what went wrong between them. Meanwhile, another woman keeps saying, “Hurry up, Carlotta, or we’ll miss the boat.” Then the author flashes back to a different boat, one in a diving incident off the coast of Whitby, in which Carlotta’s father disappeared.

Soon we’re taken farther back in time to see Leo Dell’oro, her father, as a young man arriving in London to offer his drawing skills to Felix Girard, a fossil and specimen scout. Leo is entranced by Felix’s beautiful daughter, Clotilde, who plays the spinet. He accepts Felix’s invitation to go with them on a scientific expedition to the Yucatan peninsula.

On the voyage, Leo and Clotilde become obsessed with each other in an adversarial way that bodes no good. When the ship, aptly named the Narcissus, is becalmed in the tropics, the crew mutters that Clotilde is bad luck. Eventually Felix Girard takes a small boat to shore to look for the specimens and never returns. In her grief, Clotilde turns to Leo.

Back in Whitby, England, in a lofty, remote house called “The Birdcage”, Clotilde broods over her father’s disappearance, while Leo works in his father’s jet-carving business. When Clotilde happens to visit a glassworks, she is entranced by the artisan’s creations and urges Leo to switch trades. Leo then begins a difficult, dangerous apprenticeship while his employer flirts with Clotilde and gives her glass ornaments. Meanwhile, Leo, who has been drawing pictures of the specimens brought back on the Narcissus, decides to make some models of them in glass.

Clotilde’s soul-searching leads her to conclude that her father left her intentionally, and she resolves to find him. When she finds herself with child, she tries to end the pregnancy. When Carlotta arrives, both parents are living in squalor and poverty.  Carlotta says she “grew up at the juncture of their mutually averted eyes.”

The idea of a voyage as a way to truth, freedom and happiness is present throughout the novel. Glass, too, lends itself to metaphor, with Clotilde’s delicacy and the fragility of the marriage being just two examples. The dark underworld of Whitby echoes and reinforces the characters’ hidden emotions. Descriptions of craftsmen’s workshops, scientific curiosities, and street life let readers glimpse the lives and preoccupations of some Victorians. One wonders, though, what they all add up to, in the end.

Charles Dickens’ novels are full of description, necessarily so in a time when his readers travelled less than we do now, and had no movies or television to show them lifestyles or environments unlike their own. More importantly, though, Dickens’ depictions of Victorian England’s darker side were a cry for the reform of social institutions.

The Glass Ocean does not have this social reform dimension. Instead, as Carlotta says of her grandfather’s artifacts:  “[They are] a sullen, half-rotted profusion” that “represent not the multiplication of knowledge but instead… the impossibility of knowing anything at all.”

Ruth Latta’s latest novel is The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, $20 pb, baico@bellnet.ca) For more on her work, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com

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