A certain place -- the fenlands and estuaries of East Anglia -- gives rise to Jeremy Page's books. The brilliant "Salt," his first novel, was a kaleidoscope of the people who live on and in the saline mud of that landscape. His new novel dwells with a man who hovers just offshore -- a man who could be any of us.
"Sea Change" (Viking, 274 pages, $25.95) opens in paradise, with Guy and his 4-year-old daughter, Freya, in a green pasture looking at a humble miracle: a water droplet resting at the base of a horseradish leaf. Guy's wife, Judy, is nearby, reading a book of poems. Suddenly that world -- clear, unambiguous and whole -- is smashed. The loss initiates the story to come.
Guy, alone now, is living on the ancient and wonderful Flood, a 90-foot Dutch diesel barge that used to ply the North Sea but now lives in the Blackwater estuary as a houseboat. A musician who played in a band with his wife, Guy now supports himself by giving lessons on the piano that sits, like ballast, in the hold of his barge.
Guy's life on the barge is wrapped in the ambiguous atmospheres of the coast: the air is water, the water is light, the fogs and mists mix the elements. But he writes the life he has lost: For five years he has written a nightly diary in which he imagines the ongoing story of himself, his wife (in this version an increasingly successful singer) and the now 10-year-old Freya. In this intensely researched fiction, more real to him than his current mist-shrouded solitude, Guy takes his family on a vivid trip across the rural American South -- writing his way into another way of losing them.
Guy's two lives converge after he meets Marta and Rhona, a mother and daughter who are also bereaved and living on a boat. He takes the barge out to sea, where things are both starker and more fluid than on land. Reality and writing mingle like air and water as Guy tests the possibilities of time once again.
Page's rich language evokes with preternatural skill the movement of one substance into another, the transformations along the edges of things, the way an opposite becomes its other. When he runs aground on a sandbank miles from shore, the sudden island revealed by the tide is "a surreal place -- it's land, but it's not -- at the highest tides he suspects the water closes over it like a giant eyelid."
In the book's final pages, fiction is more believable than fact. It's transformational magic, accomplished by a writer at home in a voice utterly his own.
Ann Klefstad is a writer and artist in Duluth.