By Mark Rozzo

Nov 28 2004

The Seas

Samantha Hunt

MacAdam/Cage: 192 pp., $23

Samantha Hunt's hypnotic debut a slippery minnow of a novel about the teenage daughter of a drowned sailor spills over with H2O: The nameless girl in question labors as a chambermaid at a beachfront motel called the Seas and at a sardine factory. There are attempted suicides in bathtubs, and the occasional flooded basement, and even a brief encounter with no less salty a luminary than King Neptune himself. Besotted with Jude, a 30-ish veteran of what appears to be Desert Storm, Hunt's heroine (an Aquarius) is under the impression, possibly correct, that she might be a mermaid. No wonder the townsfolk (she lives with her mom on an unspecified northerly American coast) find her "weird or special or unlucky or just too sad a puddle for them to dip their toes into."

If this waterlogged melodrama often seems a little wishy-washy, it swells into a tidal wave of full-on phantasmagoria when Jude unexpectedly melts on the floor and our beached mermaid is hauled in for questioning. Languishing in a jail cell, she tells us, "I have a Dixie Cup that I harvest my crying into so that later I can drink it, in case Jude is in there." At that point, who's to say he's not? In "The Seas," with its undertow of melancholic whimsy, what's real and what's not are as ever-shifting as the face of the ocean.