The Luminous Sea by Melissa Barbeau

Anyone who loves the sea, or feels drawn to stories of the sea, will likely feel drawn to The Luminous Sea by Melissa Barbeau, like I was. I was even nervous going into this book – I so wanted it to be good. Happily, it is more than good – it is splendid in every way.

The Luminous Sea takes place in a small outport of Newfoundland where a couple of university researchers are studying the recent phosphorescence of the water. On one of Vivienne’s trips out to collect samples, she brings in a creature she has never seen before. With excitement, she brings the creature in to her supervisor, Colleen. Together, they fashion a tank out of a chest freezer in the storage building they’re using as their lab, right outside of town.

The night air is warm on the luminous sea. Water laps against the hull. There is a splash as something unseen breaches the surface of the bay and Vivienne glances overboard. The air smells of brine and bilge water. Land smells drift on the breeze – smoke from dying fires that glow like lighted matches on the far beaches, hay meadows, the smell of the woods. A fragranced world made of base notes and top notes, scents you notice right away and ones that come later, that linger. Like perfume. There are land sounds, too, but they are far away and miniature. Splinters of laughter, the heartbeat base thrum of a radio heard as if through a thick pane of glass, fading as night shuffles its way towards dawn.

Vivienne is fascinated by the creature and immediately starts referring to her as a “she” rather than the “it” preferred by her supervisors. She worries for the creature’s health as time goes on, and as she watches Colleen and Isaiah perform tests and take samples. Tension builds between the colleagues until Vivienne not only does not feel welcome anymore, but no longer wants to be a part of it. She begins to wonder if there is a way to save the creature before it’s too late.

The creature lends a magical element to the story, or even a futuristic aspect. But it is not overdone. The author describes the body of the creature, but for the most part it is up to the reader to interpret what the creature could be. Vivienne projects human qualities onto the creature, while Colleen and Isaiah insists it is “just a fish”. (Are any fish “just fish”?)

Vivienne stands on the step, her hand hovering over the handle, before swinging the door wide and stepping over the threshold and into the lab. The late afternoon sunlight follows hers in, splashing across the dusty floor. Colleen sits at the work bench entering data sets into an Excel spreadsheet. Isaiah hunches over a microscope, peering into the eyepiece. Vivienne’s shadow, long and slinky, stretches across the room to touch him. She feels a shudder of revulsion, and moves so it reaches, instead, to stroke the freezer.

In addition to the compelling plot of the story, The Luminous Sea is beautifully written. The imagery and atmosphere of the novel is mesmerizing. The reader is right there in the outport with the characters and you can feel the spark and sizzle in the air as Vivienne lurks around Damson Bay, out of the way of Colleen and Isaiah (especially Isaiah – as disagreeable as Colleen’s temper is, Isaiah’s false joviality is worse). Vivienne befriends Tama, who runs the cafe (and makes preserves out of jellyfish!), and who might have her own reasons for wanting to help Vivienne out.

I have a fondness for jellyfish.

The fishermen stopping in for a cup of coffee after coming off the water offer ever more apocalyptic opinions about the jellyfish blooms smothering the coastline: they’re getting so thick, maid, the boat brings up short on them; the bay’s going to be a bowl of gelatine, mix in a little custard and you’ll have dessert; I believe they must go all the way down — won’t be long now you’ll be able to jump off the cliff by the lighthouse and bounce your way over to the far point.

If you’ve been wondering at all about picking this book up, please do!

A few good lines…

The storm cloud breaks and a deluge of irritation comes pelting down on Vivienne. She has not brought an umbrella.

The last thing she needs is wings and antennae in her jellies, faceted eyes staring out as if preserved in amber, waiting to be spread on toast.

I like the way Vivienne thinks…

She wonders if, on clear nights, the creature can see the moon or if the ceiling of the sea is nothing but a field of blurry blue.

She wonders if all the little microorganisms can see this giant eye staring down at them unblinking. She wonders if they all swim to the edges of the slide, trying to escape her glare.

Further Reading:

Pickle Me This: “There is a generous expansiveness at the heart of the book, doorways onto doorways, but it never grows too strange and mystical and stays controlled, anchored in the physical world, with such attention to accuracy and detail, scientific, like the image on the cover. Melissa Barbeau is an extraordinary writer, and I can’t stop talking about this book.”

Thanks to Breakwater Books for sending me a copy of this book! Other Breakwater Books I have loved: Ledger of the Open Hand by Leslie Vryenhoek and The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes by Bridget Canning.


31 thoughts on “The Luminous Sea by Melissa Barbeau

  1. Alexandra says:

    Not only does the writing sound as luminous as the title, but the cover looks gorgeous too. And given what you’ve told us, along with the quotes, this is yet another title I’m adding to my To Buy list. It sounds like a wonderful read.

  2. annelogan17 says:

    I love jellyfish too! I wish I lived closer to the sea, there’s something unmistakably magical about the ocean. I love lakes, but the ocean is definitely more interesting. Sounds like a lovely little novel!

  3. Grab the Lapels says:

    I think I’ve seen a few science fiction movies in which a character decides that a creature isn’t just a creature but something more special. Did this book get science fiction-y at all, or did it stay realistic?

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I admire jellyfish too, not in preserves though (and admittedly, at a distance). This one is now on my TBR as well. The quotations about sight and touch (the storm) definitely pull me in.

    • Naomi says:

      I felt like her book was almost tangible, like I could sense everything she was describing. There was another quotation I liked about the wet, foggy morning and the damp, splintery wood she sits on. I have sat down on wood like that so many times. Maybe I’ll just write it out for you! 🙂

      “She sits cross-legged on the verandah, her back against the paint-peeled clapboard. The silvered wood of the deck has absorbed the fog and dampens the back of her legs through her jeans. She takes off her sweater and sits on it, trying to keep from becoming completely soaked through. The wood is splintery and soft. She rubs her hands along it gently, mindful of slivers. Beneath the foggy sky the glowing sea is hazy, the soft light of a scarf over a lamp.”

      • buriedinprint says:

        OH, yes, I can feel that! Thanks for sharing it. (Also, the sweater thing never works as well as it seems like it should, does it.)

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