Pushing the limits of human endurance, free divers can hold their breath for terrifyingly long times, more than 24 minutes. But what if a human could actually breathe underwater? In “At Sea,” Emma Fedor’s fantastical, genre-defying debut novel, Brendan, a member of the U.S. Special Forces, can do just that. Or can he?
Set on Martha’s Vineyard, “At Sea” begins with an intriguing hook: A fisherman has spotted a man and child treading water in the middle of Nantucket Sound, nowhere near a boat or land. The pair slip under the water when the boat draws closer, and mysteriously, fail to resurface.
Part romance, part coming-of-age story, part thriller, “At Sea” dives deeply into the heady passion of first love, entwined in a net of grief, trauma, and mental illness. Cara, an aspiring artist, adrift after graduating from college, decides to spend the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her aunt and uncle at their family home. While sketching at the Gay Head Cliffs, she meets Brendan, a handsome (and naked) Special Forces soldier on leave. He is charismatic, funny, and mercurial. The two fall madly, passionately in love. Then Brendan shares his secret — he can breathe underwater.
In a recent email exchange, the author writes that she was “intrigued by the idea of writing a book that employed elements of sci-fi and mysticism, but that remained rooted in a deeper story about first love, familial dynamics, and the challenges of transitioning into adulthood. I knew that I wanted to have a character with some kind of superhuman ability.” The idea for Brendan’s power came to Fedor while snorkeling. “I remember thinking how otherworldly it felt to be underwater, and I started to imagine what it might be like if I could stay underwater for as long as I wanted, without the aid of a snorkel or gear. The push and pull between reality and delusion surrounding Brendan’s supposed ability didn’t come to me until I started writing.”
Fedor deftly creates the tension that drives the story’s narrative. Cara believes Brendan — she’s seen him breathe under water, or thinks she has — and tries to explain his moods and strange disappearances on his job. Unsure when Brendan will return from his deployment, Cara makes plans to move to New York City. Brendan unexpectedly returns, Cara changes her plans, and finds herself pregnant. Brendan is convinced the baby, Micah, has inherited his ability. In a horrific scene, Cara finds Brendan testing the baby in a full bathtub of water. Terrified, Cara and Micah escape to her aunt’s house. The next morning Micah is gone, a carved wooden whale left in his crib. After the kidnapping, reality sets in: Brendan may be mentally ill.
Five years later, and still struggling with her own depression and desperate obsession, Cara clings to her belief Micah may still be alive. She’s found a degree of stability in her marriage to Graham, a gallery owner. After hearing the report of the man and the child spotted in the ocean, Cara sees Brendan at the opening of her show at the gallery. Cara tracks Brendan down, and he tells her the baby has died, drowned years before. But what if Brendan is lying?
The Vineyard setting and characters are rendered in lovely prose. “The music of halyards clinking against their masts” welcome visitors arriving in Vineyard Haven on the ferry. On a winter beach walk, the characters’ “feet crunched over dry tumble-seaweed, and hollow carcasses of wind-tossed crabs. Cara picked up a black, hard, plastic-like pouch with two tendrils on each end. The inside was empty, but when she shook it she could hear flecks of sand tumbling inside like a little maraca.”
A longtime summer visitor to Cape Cod, Fedor writes, “It wasn’t until my early 20s when I met my husband (whose family had been visiting the Island for decades) that I finally made the trip across the sound. I was stunned by just how different and beautifully unique the Island was. I immediately felt the urge to capture it in writing. Every town has its own personality and flavor, and I love how different they all are.” As to why she chose to set the novel on the Vineyard, she added, “There’s just nothing like the feeling of being on a small island, surrounded by water at all times. It inspires contemplation and meditation, backdropped by a strong feeling of isolation (at least in those moments when you are able to escape the crowd).”
Not your usual summer beach read, “At Sea” offers readers a turbulent ride through Vineyard waters.
“At Sea,” by Emma Fedor, is available locally at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books.
T. Elizabeth Bell is the author of two novels set on Martha’s Vineyard, “Goats in the Time of Love,” and “Counting Chickens.”