A story to dive into

‘Shoal Water: A Novel’ will take you into a fishing community tied to the sea.


Kip Robinson Greenthal’s novel “Shoal Water” is a haunting, lyrical gem that tells a story of love — romantic, platonic, and familial — set in a small Nova Scotia fishing community. She opens with a captivating tale that sets the tone and immediately reflects Greenthal’s evocative writing:

“The dark, forbidding clouds closed in, the wind, its high-pitched universe.

“Basil Tannard turned and saw the rogue, its steeling wall of water topped by foam just before it pitched him from his Cape Island boat. Hurled into the Nova Scotia sea, he reeled, his body churning through cold swells, his eyes wide open in the briny bubbles …

“After some minutes, the angry sea coughed him up from its depths like a derelict buoy.

“He floated on his back watching the sky, and fought off the panic swallowing him. Seawater sloshed in the hollow of his ears.

“Yet he could feel something towing him through the black, heaving ocean.”

Tannard is saved by a seal, and this creature reappears as a savior throughout the novel in mystical ways in what otherwise is a very real world populated with people trying to navigate different challenges … most of them emotional.

Ostensibly, “Shoal Water” is the story of a young couple, Kate and Andy, who leave the U.S. during the Vietnam era. Andy has asked Kate to move from New York City to try to make a simpler life together in his family vacation home in a tiny Canadian fishing village. Here we meet his bosom, long-term friend Ivan — another major protagonist — and Ivan’s wife, parents, and uncle. The author builds an evocative portrait of a community intimately tied to the sea and a maritime way of life that is becoming unsupportable amid modern threats in the industry.

Within this context, the three major characters carry around ghosts of the past. Andy’s father, a CIA agent, was brutally stabbed to death under suspicious circumstances — something neither he nor his mother can let go of. Kate’s mother died when she was just 8 years old, and only “felt the world was benevolent, as long as she could run.” And Ivan witnessed his father accidentally set himself on fire while drunk.

“Shoal Water” is an engrossing slow burn. Greenthal has developed authentic, complex people whose paths feel inevitable, but keep us on edge as we follow their every step along the way, wondering if our guess is correct. Andy and Kate try to make a life for themselves — she by having them live off the land and he by opening a bookstore. Meanwhile, among other things, alcoholism and a love triangle play a part as the tale builds to a traumatic event that will change multiple lives. 

Greenthal, who will visit a friend on the Vineyard when she’s here for an upcoming book talk, says inspiration for her novel came from a tragic event she heard about when she was 37, living in Nova Scotia. 

“This is how a fiction writer can work — taking a real-life event and using it as a trigger to conjure up scenes and questions taken from one’s own personal experience,” she says. “To write ‘Shoal Water,’ I had to imagine everything I could about the characters who were tangential. I created these characters based on what I learned from living in an inshore fishing community and working at the local library for nine years, where I met and worked with many local Nova Scotians. My characters are a collage of these people.”

Greenthal’s title is pitch-perfect. “Shoal water is the shallows, where the sea floor comes up just beneath the [water’s] surface, a treacherous place to be,” she says. “Not in deep water, and not on land, it is a place in between, full of unexpected hazards, submerged sandbars, diffracted waves, and counter-currents. Yet shoal water is also where the richest fishing grounds lie, and also the possibility of a surprising turn of events.”

In the book, Ivan’s uncle, an inshore fisherman, refers to shoal water when he recounts a dream to Andy that he has had all his life: “I’m coming in from fishing, see, but I can’t tell west from east, north from south, because the points of my compass don’t register. I try to find the markers for the shoals, but the sky’s as black as the sea, and I can’t see nothing. I know the shoals are coming like a man can smell the warmth of another human being when his eyes are closed. But the difference is my eyes are wide open. The boat pitches beneath me, and I know I’ve come in by the shoal water. Fear, that’s what I call the shoal water, fear that you run aground and let the sea break over you.

“Shoal water is the fear inside me. Yet if I can feel the shallows coming in time, I can right myself and get through them.”

But “Shoal Water” also speaks of hope. “Grace is represented by the seal in the story,” Greenthal says. “Whenever a seal appears in times of danger, it gives back life to those who experience it, and to those who believe it. Magical realism has a role here, asking the reader to believe in the possibility of transformation.”

Kip Robinson Greenthal will read short passages highlighting her main characters and the tension that builds in this maritime story on Oct. 27 at 6:30 pm at the Edgartown library. Kip’s husband, musician and songwriter Stanley Greenthal, will accompany Kip on guitar, and sing “Shoal Water,” a song they wrote together.

“Shoal Water: A Novel” by Kip Robinson Greenthal, $17.95. Available through the library CLAMS system.