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Everything about By the Shore, Galaxy Craze's debut novel, is so hushed and tentative -- the prose, the relationships, the inconsequential incidents that constitute the plot and, inevitably, the point -- that the book constantly seems in danger of collapsing in on itself. Adolescence as Craze presents it is less the swirl of inchoate feelings it's usually described as than a perpetual walking on eggshells.
It may be that Craze is trying to capture something of the retreat from life that her 12-year-old narrator, May, has been made to share with her mother. Lucy, the mother, has left the endless party of '60s London By the Shore takes place in the early '70s and opened an oceanside bed-and-breakfast inn in a former girls' school. Lucy and May and May's little brother, Eden, stay there even through the guestless months of fall and winter. Change arrives as it must in all coming-of-age novels in the guise of a stranger -- in this case a famous writer who wants to complete a book at the B&B. He brings with him a young female assistant who may or may not be his girlfriend and whose possessiveness inhibits the attraction that seems to be growing between him and Lucy.
It's typical of Craze's style that this burgeoning romance seems to consist of nothing more than seaside walks, games of Scrabble and conversations of muffled intent. Was ever a writer so inaptly named? By the Shore very much wants to be atmospheric and haunting, but at times its sensitivity feels more like a parody of a first novel:
They moved in a little closer and huddled around the rock as though it were a tiny fire on a freezing night. There was a dent in the top and Rufus ran his finger over it. Then he looked up at my mother, keeping his hand on the rock. I saw him looking at her. The light from the torch shone on her mouth and neck and breath. When she turned to him, their eyes caught and he looked lost for a moment.
There are some good moments, mostly the ones with May reacting to her mother's new beau by clinging to her with girlish possessiveness. And there's a very good scene, in which May is invited to a slumber party by the most popular girl in her school, that captures the frightened feeling of a child's first introduction to big-kid behavior. But By the Shore is mired in a fug of sensitivity. With all the wounded feelings wafting about, you can't see the damn shore.
It can be dangerous to live by the shore. In the winter, after a storm, things wash up on it: rusty pieces of sharp metal, glass, jellyfish. You must be careful where you tread. Sometimes I see a lone fish that has suffocated on the shore and think for days that there are fish in the water waiting for it to return. Then I think, There is nowhere to be safe.
But in the summer, when the guests are here, there are different things in the sand: suntan lotion, coins, and flip-flops. I even found a silver watch and it was still ticking. Once I found what I thought was a piece of skin buried in the sand. I made my brother Eden pick it up with a twig and put it in a jar of water.
This house used to be a girls' school. It had a bareness, which was its beauty. There were rusty coat hooks in the front hall and wooden cubbyholes with the names of the girls etched in them.
My mother, my brother Eden, and I moved here from London two years ago. I was ten, then, and Eden was four. When we first walked into the house, I thought, There is so much room, I can do whatever I want; I can do cartwheels down the hallways. But then we moved into the old headmistress's flat on the top floor, which had small rooms and slanted ceilings. The rest of the house was for the guests. Annabel, my mother's friend from London, came to help decorate; she hung curtains and put soap dishes in the bathrooms.
In the summer all the rooms are full. People come to swim in the sea, to sunbathe on the rocks. During the autumn and winter hardly anyone comes to stay, andI move into one of the empty guest rooms at the bottom of the house.
One afternoon, near the end of October, I came home from school and all my books, clothes and china animals had been moved. As I stood in the doorway, I thought, I must have walked into the wrong room. A broom lay on the floor next to a dustpan. The sheets had been taken off the bed. The windows were open and the rain was coming in.
I walked out of the room along the stone passageway and the steps that led to the back staircase. Then I walked up three flights of stairs, to our flat at the top of the house, to find my mother.
She was in the kitchen making tea. Annabel, who was visiting from London, sat at the table holding a cigarette.
"I thought I heard elephant footsteps," Annabel said, when she saw me. I didn't look at her.
"What have you done to my room?" My mother had her back to me. She was pouring water into the teapot. Eden sat on the floor, practising his handwriting.
"I did nothing. Annabel put everything in a box."
"A guest wants it. Would you like a cup of tea?" She put the pot on the table and sat down.
"Why don't you put the guest in one of the rooms on the first floor?" I asked, standing with my arms crossed. I had the feeling she had done this to spite me.
"He wanted the quietest rooms in the house. You can stay in one of the others if you want."
"I can't sleep there." It was true; some nights I would hear the sound of opera music below us. I would sit up in bed and listen. I heard what sounded like a party coming from the guest sitting room on the first floor: voices and the clink of glasses, a fire crackling and someone's laugh. But when I looked, walking slowly down the stairs, the room went quiet. It was dark and there was no one in it.
"I'm sorry, darling, but we need the money."
"He's not going to like that dungeon when he sees it," Annabel said. I liked Annabel; she brought the city with her.
"He's a writer," my mother said.
"A writer?" Annabel said. "You didn't tell me. Who is it?"
My mother was mixing butter and honey with a knife on her plate. She looked confused.
"Well, what did he sound like?" Annabel asked.
"I never spoke to him. A woman phoned and made the bookings."
"His wife?" Annabel asked.
"How long is he planning on staying?" I asked. I sat down at the table with them. I wanted some tea.
"She said until Christmas." She spread the mixed-up butter and honey on a piece of bread and cut it in half. I took one of the pieces.
"Do you think he's famous?" Annabel asked. "I do love a star in the house."
* * *
Annabel took Eden and me to see Fantasia. When the film ended she said she fancied a sausage roll. We drove to the shop, but it was closed. I remembered it was Sunday night, and I had two lots of maths homework to do. We drove home in the drizzle.
When we arrived back at the house there was a woman standing outside the door. The rain was thicker now and she had wedged herself in the corner of the doorway, trying not to get wet.
At first I thought she was the crazy woman from London, asking to use the loo. During the summer holidays I spent a week with Annabel in London. In the middle of the afternoon a woman rang the bell. When Annabel said hello, the woman asked if she could use the loo. "Is she mad?" Annabel asked me, and we peeked out of the window to see what she looked like. All we saw was the back of her, bright yellow hair and a skirt suit that made her look like a stewardess. Then she came back the next day and asked again.
"Hello!" the woman by the door shouted to us as we were getting out of the car. "Are you Lucy?"
"No, I'm not," Annabel said.
"Do you know where she is? I've been ringing the bell for at least ten minutes but no one's answering." She was wearing a shiny black raincoat and high leather boots.
"The bell is broken." Annabel grabbed Eden by the wrist and walked quickly towards the door, as though they were crossing a busy street. "Are you here for a room?" she asked, as she opened the door and let her inside.
"Yes," the woman said as she tried to brush the raindrops from her coat. "I phoned the other day about two rooms." Then I knew who she was, the one who wanted the quietest ones.
"Oh, for the writer?" Annabel turned to me with a bounce and said, "Be an angel and find your mother, will you?" I stood there. They were both looking at me. I was trying to leave but I couldn't move. I felt so heavy.
"Well, hurry up," Annabel said, and gave me a push on the back that got me going.
The staircase was long and made of dark wood. I walked slowly. The air was thick from the rain.
My mother was sitting on the sofa in our sitting room, a cup of tea in her hand. She had her back to me.
"There's a woman downstairs."
I could see the top of her head jerk up.
"Christ," she said. Then she stood up and looked at me. "Don't come up behind me like that." She had spilled her tea; it was running down her arm and onto her shirt. She held the hand with the cup out as though it were being pulled by a string.
"Get me something," she said.
"There's a woman downstairs waiting for you," I said again.
"I have to change," she said, unbuttoning her shirt. "It's one of my favourite shirts, you know. Run down and tell her I'll be right there."
I didn't go back downstairs. I went into the kitchen to get something to eat. There were three baked potatoes on the stove that were still warm. I took one and cut it in half and put salt and pieces of butter in it, and then I closed it back up and waited for the butter to melt. I stood there with my hands wrapped around the potato. My stomach hurt. I thought about the polar bear in the zoo, the way he walks back and forth against the bars of his cage, back and forth, up and down. Every day he must wonder, How did this happen, and when will it end?
Posted July 4, 2000
I absolutely loved this book, although it is a very fast read, I finished it in one day. It got me hooked, the author is great at describing characters and scenery. I found that the book was very similar to She's come undone, by Wally Lamb. I felt as if I was in England at the time I read it. Definitely read it and I look forward to seeing more books by this author.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 6, 2008
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Posted September 5, 2012
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