the two mrs grenvilles by dominick dunne

Times Literary Supplement 12 September 2008

Author portrait ©   Sarah Lee

The Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco’s best-selling novella Silk delineated the love story of a French silkworm smuggler in Japan. For his second novel, he has turned to the several lives that overlap at a nineteenth century outpost. At the Almayer Inn, all of the guests are trying to escape something. Dira, the ten-year-old girl who works there, intuits, “People come here and time stops. For some it must be a feeling akin to happiness, don’t you think?”. There is Professor Ismael Bartleboom, who pens billets doux to an imaginary woman and is writing The Encyclopedia of Limits, in order to find out the point at which the sea ends. There is Plasson, who is trying to paint the sea and asks himself “where the dickens are the eyes of the sea?”; Ann Deveria, who has been sent there by her husband to be cured of adultery; her lover, Dr Savigny; Adams, a sailor; Father Pluche, who is given to saying the wrong thing; and the young invalid Elisewin who is suffering from a mysterious illness, which she describes thus: “It’s a bit like feeling you’re dying. Or disappearing. That’s it: disappearing. It seems as if your eyes are slipping away from your face’.” Elisewin, and the whole novel, appear to be fatally afflicted by evanescence: everything is unmoored. The main character, of course, is the sea, “The sea enchants, the sea kills, it moves, it frightens, it also makes you laugh sometimes, it disappears every now and then ...” The liminal quality of the book is not limited to its subject-matter: it is a mixture of genres, from pseudo-Conradian tales of the high seas to opera librettos. There are also intrusions into the text, scraps of free verse and interior monologue, that are so pretentious and nonsensical that they undermine the whole book. There are many gnomic utterances and unintentionally hilarious sequences in Ocean Sea, to the extent that one wonders if the book might be a pastiche; but sadly, Baricco appears to take himself very seriously indeed (in the late 1970s the author was the cofounder of a writing school in Turin whose purpose was to create a new fiction based entirely on fantasy). It is possible that something has been lost in translation but I feel this would be doing the translator, Alistair McEwen, a disservice.

This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement