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Sea Change
Jeremy Page
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INTRODUCTION

“When it comes down to it, there’s no sense, no plan, no shape to things. They just occur. They occur and then you carry on, because time carries on, you change, you adapt, you just have to” (p. 165).

Guy is a man adrift, in every sense. Five years ago, he witnessed the tragic accidental death of his four–year–old daughter, Freya. His wife left him shortly after. Grief stricken, Guy now lives in seclusion on the Flood, an old Dutch barge in an estuary in East Anglia. He hopes to escape the memories of Freya’s accident, yet he struggles with how to move on given he “has a father’s heart, but . . . isn’t a father any more” (p. 109).

In an effort to cope, Guy creates a parallel universe in his diary—an imagined life in which Freya doesn’t die and his family takes a long–promised drive across the American South. This is the man Guy might have been and the family he should have had. As Guy writes, the diary and reality start to merge: a cabin in Mississippi resembles the Flood, aquatic imagery inundates descriptions of the interior of North America, and in both universes Guy hasn’t slept for multiple nights. Most poignantly, his daughter starts appearing and talking to him on the barge; their special rapport feels effortless and alive.

One day, Guy encounters Marta and Rhona, a mother and daughter on a boat anchored near him in the estuary. As a bond between them emerges, Marta reveals that she and her daughter are at sea on a similar quest, attempting to bring closure to the death of her husband, Rhona’s father. Marta explains, “We’re both here to get away from the ghosts, aren’t we? Or maybe we’re bringing them with us” (p. 143). The bond between them is strengthened when Guy saves Rhona after she slips off the boat one night, averting her mother’s worst fear. Marta soon takes an interest in Guy’s diary, skeptical that the skewed world he is creating will allow him to accept a real future for himself. “You have to believe in your own life, too, surely” (p. 144), Marta says.

The novel reaches a climax when Guy faces down a huge storm on the North Sea that threatens to capsize his barge and drown him. In the aftermath, Guy is exhilarated, “He can’t quite believe it. Can’t quite believe many things in fact, that he’s survived, that the Flood can cope with all this . . . that he used a sea anchor against all odds” (p. 221). The release helps him to embrace a new understanding, an acceptance of the transience and flux of life, and a realization that pain stems from our illusions and certainty that our loved ones will be permanent fixtures. Guy’s diary shifts to a real future: a possible romance with Marta, a chance to begin life again.


ABOUT JEREMY PAGE

Jeremy Page

Jeremy Page is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Salt, which was short–listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book and the Jelf First Novel Award. He has worked as a script editor for Film Four, the filmmaking division of the UK’s Channel Four, and teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia. He lives in London with his wife and three children.



A CONVERSATION WITH JEREMY PAGE

Q. You write about losing a child with unmistakable authority, deep feeling, and fresh insight. Was it a difficult thing for you to write about and did it stem from personal experience?

It was one of the hardest challenges of writing the book, and not something that I took lightly. When you are writing about such a delicate and emotional experience, you take great care to be as sensitive and as authentic as you can be. I have three children. I have never experienced the specific loss that occurs to Guy in the book, but my first child does not live with me all the time and times of loss is something I know a great deal about. I wanted to write about this, but also about the transformation that children bring to a life, how they create a love and bond that is more thrilling and beautiful than anything felt before, yet it’s a bond that can be put in jeopardy by events beyond your control.

Q. Nature is a force to be reckoned with in this novel, from wild horses to brutal storms on the North Sea. Can you describe the role you intended these elements to play in Sea Change?

I grew up on the North Norfolk coast, facing a sea that was dead calm on six days of the year and every other day liable to whip up into something quite wild, frenzied, and unexpected. What was there in the morning wasn’t what you got later in the day. Sometimes all it took was to turn your back and you would feel it changing behind you. I think it probably taught me a lot about nature, and how in the most benign of situations there is always the possibility for a wilder and untamed essence that might emerge. Certainly, the first chapter of Sea Change is all about this—how an apparent idyll can mask currents of wildness and violence beneath it. I have always been fascinated by the idea of frontiers, where safety becomes danger, where tamed meets untamed, and I like to hunt for these frontiers in my characters, too. Life on these edges is where life is most vital. In Sea Change, Guy has been rewired due to the experience of encountering one of these wild edges. As a result, he is drawn towards the wild, a moth to the flame. Unlike the majority of us, however, he is too enthralled by it, and now willing to put a foot over that border. He’ll accept all that might come to him as a result.

Q. The book is in a kind of eternal present tense, one that somehow conveys the past and the imagined “past future” of the family’s drive in America. How and why did you choose this tense?

Tense is always a difficult question for writers to resolve and in previous work I’ve written in the past, the present, and even a mixture of the two. Often it comes down to instinct, which I take great trust in.

It’s very possible to start a novel or story in one tense and then a completely different tense creeps in and takes over. You let it happen, see where it goes, and if it works, you stick with it. For Sea Change I wanted to forge the closest connection between the writing and the reader—I needed the story to be direct and passionate. When you’re writing about emotion, about uncertainty of what’s around the corner, and want to have the most intimate connection with the reader, the present tense feels right. There really was no choice in the matter. But the present is by no means my preferred tense. My new novel is entirely written in the past tense.

Q. Guy and Judy are musicians, and in several passages you describe music and music making with care and knowledge. What role does music play in your life, and in the book? Does the trip through the South come from your own pilgrimage to Nashville and the Mississippi Delta?

Music was always going to be a large part of the novel, and one of its challenges too, because writing about music can be a tricky business. Get it wrong, and it can be a bunch of tedious passages for the reader to follow. The playlist from the novel very much comes from my own road trip through the southern states. My route took me through areas of bluegrass, country, the Mississippi blues, and down to the hotter rhythms of zydeco and Cajun. I’d never been to such a place where music and landscape went so much hand in hand—every place name was also a lyric in a song—get the right track order, and you can pretty much navigate without a map from the eastern seaboard to the gulf. Guy and Judy are musicians, they met through a love of music, and it’s in music that the best part of their relationship still exists. As Guy’s driving along his imagined journey through the southern states, he’s searching for perfect moments, when the flicker of light between trees matches the rhythm of the banjo, or when he sees his wife lost in the music on stage. He’s after transcendence, and for me, music is all about transcendence—about forgetting or shaping the moment into something else. Occasionally he finds it, as I did too, driving on my own pilgrimage. Everyone deserves to drive along an endless highway in Alabama with Dolly Parton’s “Mule Skinner Blues” on the stereo, at least once in a life.

Q. Both of your novels are rooted in an evocative, unique place, East Anglia, which is where you grew up. How has this place shaped you and your work?

East Anglia is a deeply evocative place. It’s hard to grow up there and not end up writing about it in some form or the other. It’s a place that has inspired some of England’s finest writing, and is a chosen haven of sorts for many writers working today. I’ve recently written an essay for the University of East Anglia about how the region has inspired its writers, and whether an identifiable East Anglian “style” exists. For me, East Anglia is both a place and a state of mind, and it’s the state of mind that I think has been particularly useful to me as a working writer. A sense of place is always a fundamental part of writing, and most authors have a root that keeps rising to the surface in their work, and in this way I feel lucky to have grown up against such an imaginative and spacious backdrop. But a sense of place is also about the tensions of being there, and a lot of my writing seems to be about getting away from East Anglia, too. In Sea Change, the journeys across the southern states and the one across the North Sea were as fundamental as writing about the estuaries where Guy has made his home. And of course, you find home when you’re farthest from it: Tennessee is very like Norfolk.

Q. In a way, the novel is about writing. At one point Guy thinks, “It’s a wonderful thing to write. You can reclaim the things you lost” (p. 35). This is an appealing idea, yet Marta helps him see writing’s limits. Does this reflect a tension you feel about what writing is and how it serves the writer?

People write for different reasons and I expect the process has a different effect on each author. For me, the line you’ve quoted rings true. Writing really does reclaim the things you’ve lost. I remember very well writing that line and wondering about its meaning. Writing seems to be about recapturing the memory, adding clarity to the things you may have missed, and about bringing the present into a sharper focus. It does all these things for me, and generally rebalances the boat when it begins to rock. I also find writing a very physical business. I tend to write in a shed at the bottom of my garden in London and after a day of being in there I’m generally exhausted, wild–eyed, and I’ve forgotten how to speak. Sometimes I’ve even missed lunch, although more often than not when I begin to get hungry I’ve noticed my characters will sit down to eat, making me do the same. When Guy, Judy, and Freya found that doughnut stall in Tennessee, that was lunchtime. I remember it well.

Q. How much of Guy is reflected in you, the author?

It’s hard to write a hundred thousand words and not have aspects of your own character seeping into the characters in the book. Guy does have similarities to me. I’m like him when I drive a car, we like the same music, and some of the things he gets up to on the boat are things I’d be tempted by. Certainly when he catches and fries up the mackerel, and possibly when he crashes into the sandbank. I crashed a boat into a bridge during the research for the novel. I expect he makes a good cup of coffee, which I’m fussy about too, and he’s an admirer of craftsmanship and nature. But in other ways he’s a very different man. He’s more reckless than me, more independent and is more wary of others. I think being in his own company and being in charge of his space have made him a little mistrustful of others and liable to make poor judgments of character. I’d certainly like to have a drink with him—we wouldn’t be short of conversation and we’d have a lot in common, but I think at the end of the night I might feel a little troubled by some of the things he’d said. He’s a step closer to tragedy than most of us. As an author I do feel close to him, but I think I should mention there are aspects of the other characters that resemble me, too. I’m capable of Marta’s gentility and thoughtfulness and at times Rhona’s wild streak. I was like her when I was her age. I suppose the point I’m making is that when you create characters you share yourself among them, giving them enough of your own traits to understand them, but leaving enough mystery for them to teach you new things.

Q. The book’s ending is ambiguous. How do you imagine Guy’s and Marta’s stories play out? Do their lives intersect again?

There is ambiguity at the ending, and from feedback I’ve had and from correspondence and meeting readers in reading groups and literary festivals here in England, my version of what happens is not always the same as theirs. But that’s fine by me. I really believe that I don’t own this story anymore—as soon as someone is willing to read it, it has to become their story. If the reader wants to imagine a character that looks different to the one I have pictured, then that’s the way it is. It suits them, and the character has to live in a real way in their imagination, just as much as it did in mine when I wrote it. A book keeps on living and changing and reinventing itself. I’m sure if I read it again in a few years the characters might have changed for me, also. Many books that I have reread have become different experiences for me, with different characters and motivations. And this is particularly the case where there is ambiguity. In Sea Change, what a reader believes happens at the end feels just as valid as my own version. I’d like to believe that Guy’s and Marta’s lives intersect again. They would be good for each other. But sometimes life just isn’t that fair.

Q. What are you working on now? Is it set in East Anglia? How does it relate to Sea Change?

My new novel is historical. Set during a journey to the Arctic in 1845, it’s the search for an extinct bird—the great auk, rumored to have died out the previous year—but the novel is also something of a ghost story and a mystery. There are currents of obsession and an awareness of nature that link it to Sea Change, but in other aspects it feels very different. Writing a historical novel has been liberating and challenging in equal measure. Liberating, because the themes of the age are so fascinating, but challenging in terms of getting into the mind–set of character from a different time. Writing about the Arctic was enjoyable—its size and mystery felt like the North Sea did in Sea Change, and its themes of extinction and preservation make it relevant and pertinent to this age. Initially none of it was going to be set in East Anglia, but during the writing a theme emerged—a remembered mystery that informs the events of the novel—set in the green autumnal light of a Norfolk manor house and gardens, that I just had to weave in. I heard the rooks in the trees, saw the damp leaves on the lawn, and a girl being walked barefoot around a path, and knew it was central to the novel. Sometimes these things appear, fully formed, entirely unexpected, and you have to follow them.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. At the beginning of the book, Guy rescues a greenfinch and keeps it in a box on the Flood. Why does he do this? What does it tell us about Guy in general, and about his current state?

  2. Guy thinks, “You remember the things you save; you cannot forget the things you lose” (p. 22). What does this mean for Guy? What does it mean to you?

  3. What is the meaning of the word estuary? How does the estuary metaphor reinforce character and theme in the novel?
  4. What, specifically, is the nature of the connection between Guy and Marta? What do they share? How do they differ? What do they offer or teach each other?

  5. The book is suffused with water imagery, even in passages set on dry land. What are some examples? What effect does this imagery have on the reader and the book?

  6. What is a sea change? Is it an apt title? Why is the British edition titled The Wake?

  7. On page 126, Page writes, “The real Phil has both legs in place, but the one in the diary, the one Guy imagines, was given a ridiculous accident a couple of years back—the fool got his shin snagged in a shopping trolley, of all things, and after an almost impossible secondary infection of the wound, had to have the lower part of his right leg removed. Very painful it was.” Why is this passage important? What do we learn?

  8. Where is Marta from? What symbolism might there be in her country of origin? What saying in her native tongue does she share with Guy? When does it recur and how does the saying reverberate in the novel as a whole?

  9. How did the portrayal of grief in this novel affect you? In what ways did you relate, or not relate, to it?

  10. Is the book’s ending happy or sad, closed or open? What effect did it have on you? Why do you think the author choose to end the book this way?