Philip Shumway is only 13 years old when his older brother disappears. Stepping out to explore Baker's Bottoms Pond near his rural Massachusetts home, the child prodigy vanishes without a trace. Frederick Reiken's The Odd Sea chronicles the decade following the disappearance, examining how the event affects an already dysfunctional family. The heroic father throws himself into the chisels of timber framing. The angry mother loses herself for months in a psychiatric hospital and Victorian novels. Amy, the oldest sister, screams at the family to move on and steals Ethan's diary to keep them from trying to hang on to what doesn't exist. All the while, Philip, the narrator of this touching story, wanders the woods "not-finding" Ethan.

Reiken remarkably captures the unresolved nature of a disappearance, the world of questions, false leads, and dashed hopes. At times various family members convince themselves that Ethan has been brutally murdered or has run away to Arles, France, to follow in the footsteps of Van Gogh. While everyone crafts their own personal grief crutches, it is Philip who creatively employs his desire to remember his brother with his own budding artistry. Philip walks the woods and backroads scribbling vignettes in bulging notebooks, attempting to "remember everything" about Ethan. He grows to realize these stories won't bring his brother back, but they will bring him out of the nothingness he is so rightly afraid of.

In the hands of a lesser novelist, the story could easily dissolve into emotional schlock, but Reiken's voice is pitch-perfect fragile, yet resolute, sad, but celebratory. He renders the family's torment in all its contradictory complexity, depicting grieving not as a linear process that can be broken into 12 simple steps, but rather disparate mixture of melancholy, sureness, and confusion that defies timelines and the cliched words of experts. Much like Ordinary People, The Odd Sea strikes with its understated lyricism, surprises with its maturity and awes with its complexity. Reiken is only in his twenties, but writes with the confidence of an author three times his age; someone this young isn't supposed to write something this good.

 

 

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