“The Ocean in Winter” by Elizabeth de Veer intermingles the themes of the loving bonds of sisterhood, inherited family trauma, healing, and mystery in her moving and intriguing debut novel.
The story opens with a perplexing prologue in the midst of a wicked storm narrated by Riley, the youngest of the three Emery sisters: “I am hurtling through Massachusetts at a rate of speed I cannot understand; the wind blows my cheeks, but it does not feel cold.” She goes on to say about the city of Amesbury, where she grew up: “The town was too small for me, I suppose, and too much had happened for me and Amesbury to pretend that we had ever been all that close.”
Riley arrives at the old farmhouse that belongs to her oldest sister, Alex, who, along with the middle sister Colleen, has been desperately searching for Riley, who had gone missing some time ago. Something is definitely off about this visit, however: “Alex stares at me, I wonder if she can see through me. ‘Riley, where have you been? We’ve been trying so hard to find you.’ I don’t know how to answer her questions, any of them, including am I hungry. Am I? I can’t tell. I don’t know. And where have I been? Everywhere and nowhere.”
The story jumps back chronologically, meticulously moving forward to that night … and eventually just beyond. Each chapter is narrated by one of the sisters. In the process, we learn how the sisters’ lives are changed forever when Alex, at age 11, discovers her mother dead, having drowned herself in the bathtub. She and Colleen, then 8, become the de facto mother to 6-year-old Riley as their father retreats into himself, and essentially leaves the girls to raise themselves.
The unresolved trauma of their mother’s suicide echoes through their adult lives. Alex, a nurse grieving her struggle to have a child, has just reluctantly returned from India to deal with her emotionally damaged father and the old, haunted farmhouse she unexpectedly inherited from a stranger. Colleen, who has devoted herself to being the perfect wife and mother, finds her marriage has fallen apart, and then disaster strikes her home. To her sisters, Riley was leading the dream life of a successful, glamorous model in New York until they can’t locate her, and Colleen hires a private detective, fearing that something serious is going on. About all their troubles, at one point, Colleen reflects, “Mom made her choice 25 years ago, and it’s like the three of us have been carrying her body in a bag slung over our shoulders.”
De Veer’s title was inspired one winter when she and her husband were walking their dog by the ocean.
“One day, we were walking out there, and I looked out at the dark water, and everybody all bundled up against the cold wind,” the author explains. “I thought about what a completely different place the ocean is in winter, as opposed to the beach in summer. In summer, we are exposed, open, warm, safe, social. In winter, the beach becomes a solitary place, a place where we reflect on our thoughts and our lives. And the sisters in this book are doing a lot of that. Plus, much of the book is set by the ocean and in winter, so it did seem fitting.”
In this bittersweet tale of love, de Veer skillfully reveals bits and pieces of secrets along the way, keeping the tension high and us guessing what is truly going on, and wondering if we know where the story will end. While a work of fiction, “The Ocean in Winter” conveys an important message to anyone whose life has been touched by heartbreak, which is the need to let go of the past, or else it will destroy you.
De Veer herself says, “I would like readers to walk away from this book with the feeling that they’ve been through a lot with this story and these characters, but have come out the other side. The ending has some happy parts and sad parts; however, overall, I think it ends on a hopeful note, and I hope that’s what readers focus on … the fact that positive change is possible even after so much grief. And even though all our lives experience stormy weather, if we’re open to changing how we are in the world and challenging ourselves, we can make it through.”
Elizabeth de Veer will be at Edgartown Books on Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, from 2 to 4 pm.
“The Ocean in Winter” by Elizabeth de Veer, $18.99. Available at Edgartown Books, Bunch of Grapes bookstore, and online.