Books Magazine

Book Review – The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

The Starboard SeaHALF of my Fiction Hot Picks for 2013 have a January UK publication date, and I didn’t anticipate what a scramble it would be to give them the attention they deserve. They are all excellent of course, but The Starboard Sea is one of the best books I’ve read in years, which is why it’s the first one to get a full-length review.

This is Amber Dermont’s debut novel but her writing career is well established:  her short stories have been widely published, she holds an MFA from the illustrious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature and is an Associate Professor at a college in Georgia.  A debut author often breaks onto the scene with nothing but the book to their name; a track record like this creates expectation, and I’m inclined to be more critical when somebody comes with objective proof they can write well.  But in the end it makes no difference and nor should it.  Those considerations belong in the real world, fiction is about creating another, and we’d better believe it.

Recently I wrote about themes which have enduring popularity, several of which appear in The Starboard Sea:  the lives of the supremely wealthy, the boarding school/campus setting and the coming of age novel.  Dermont does much to ensure that this is more than just ‘another of those.’ It opens in the run-up to the 1987 Wall Street Crash; 18 year old Jason Prosper, second son of a Manhattan banking dynasty, is transferring to the exclusive Bellingham Academy boarding school on the coast of New England for his senior year.  We know this follows the death of his lifelong friend and sailing partner Cal at their previous school.  Jason is once again surrounded by his own kind but finds it hard to fit in, overwhelmed by memories of Cal which are woven into the main story throughout, making him feel strangely present:

I’ d heard that amputees had phantom pains [...] their bodies unconvinced that the limbs were removed [...] I felt more like the severed arm or leg longing for its missing body [...] For years, I’d been happy to simply experience my life as an extension of Cal’s.

Jason even tries to shun the sea by giving up sailing after an incident with new partner Race in his early days at Bellingham, but is drawn back to it when his old passion meets a new one in the form of a troubled and enigmatic girl, Aidan.  Dermont’s writing is beautiful by default, but on the subject of the ocean (and it’s no surprise to learn she is an accomplished sailor), it is transcendent.  Here, Jason has been teaching Aidan about the power of the wind:

She held each end of the scarf above her head, the silk capturing the wind, arching above her like a parachute.  Aidan released one end, kiting the scarf. The wind swirled around her for a moment before Aidan let go completely [....] The light silk caught a thermal and rose, sailing above the water.  A dark bird against the blue sky.

As Jason struggles to come to terms with his grief, a hurricane brings both more tragedy and a gruesome mystery which he feels obliged to resolve whatever the cost.   It’s a compulsion that the reader shares, because as a first person narrator Jason is tortured and confused but at the same time highly empathetic.  Despite transgressions which are increasingly hinted at until the dramatic denouement, I cared about him and made allowances for him.  This book ticks just about every box for me but like all my favourites, it comes down to the quality of the writing and the strong emotional connection I formed with the character.  Jason is my contemporary and I think I would have fallen in love with him too, though no good could have come of it.

The portrayal of ‘outrageous privilege’, as Jason calls it, is finely judged; he can see how it has tainted him and those around him – for example: hundreds of dollars donated to the school during a ground-breaking ceremony for dorms financed by Jason’s father fly away because nobody can be bothered to pick them up.  This lends him a kind of ironic distance that serves the narrative well and on the whole saves it from cliché – it’s not the closed world of the upper class but nor is it the story of the social interloper.  There are several touching moments where Jason is drawn to his sailing coach, a teacher, the local police officer, even a doorman – and is as fascinated by the ordinariness of their lives as readers will be by his.  I liked his tenderness and compassion towards his mother, who whiles away her days at the hair salon and with boozy lunches with other aging socialites.

In places, the maturity of Jason’s reflections on the big questions seems unlikely in an 18 year old but he himself feels that he is too old for this boarding school world, burdened and  isolated by what he’s been through.   Cal was the one who coined the title phrase ‘the starboard sea’ to express an idea that is central to the book: means the right sea, the true sea ,or like finding the best path in life.  It’s deep.  I’m telling you, it’s going to catch on.

Jason’s character is in contrast to the other students at the school, most of whom aren’t consumed by moral dilemmas but by the more standard pursuits of sex, substances and casual disregard for property and other people.  It’s very entertaining and all the more so for taking place in a country which likes to see itself as classless – although in fairness 1987 is a long time ago.  It’s all there in the evocative detail of the stockmarket crash, the slightly dated vulgarity of the way the kids speak, the references to Depeche Mode and Madonna.

One thing irritated me a lot – the perversity of giving the main female character in a very male book a boy’s name, AIDAN (and it’s acknowledged as such, so that’s not just me being British) and making it even worse by calling one of the few other girls NADIA.  I kept waiting for some anagram-related plot development…

Listen to me, splitting hairs over something so small!  That’s what you resort to when you love a book this much.  January is a bit early to be predicting my top 5 books of the year, but if this isn’t one of them I’d be very surprised.


Later this week, a post on the project I’m about to start – and hopefully also finish!

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