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Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye

Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye is a book that languished in my “to read” pile for about a year. After finishing Alan Hollinghurst’s exceptional novel The Stranger’s Child I was fishing around for something to read – feeling that nothing could be quite as good and I needed a sort of literary sorbet to cleanse the palate and make the transition back to ordinary books. What I got instead is another dynamite, exceptional, literary novel by a truly beautiful writer – and a great story.

Safe from the Sea is set in our own time, on the shores of Lake Superior, a few hours outside of Duluth, Minnesota. It is landscape not too dissimilar to our own – we feel that we know the geography of this place. We meet a young couple, Noah and Natalie, and Noah’s father Olaf Torr. Olaf is unwell, how unwell Noah is not sure but he has come home to see his father. Theirs has been a difficult relationship and they have seldom seen each other or communicated in recent years. For Noah and for Olaf this becomes a time to finally talk, before Olaf dies, to put the past in perspective. Both men have matured and both men want a reconciliation before it is too late.

Olaf Torr was a man who made his living, and spent his life, on the Great Lakes freighters, on boats moving ore across the lakes. He was a natural sailor of Norwegian ancestry and he loved the boats. After surviving the sinking of a ship he worked on, with only two other men, Olaf became a legend among his peers - the man who lived when the Ragnarok went down. Olaf went back on the boats, away from his family for much of the time, when his children, Noah and Solveig, were growing up.

The story of the past is slowly revealed over the days that Olaf and Noah spend together. Olaf, too weak to look after himself and his home, a cabin built many years earlier by his own father, tells his son the truth, as he sees it, about his life. Noah listens and forgives. No longer a needy young boy, Noah can understand some of what his father offers as way of explanation for his behaviour during Noah’s childhood.

Noah has had to make a difficult choice, to leave his wife alone at a time when she needs his support, to fly across the country to care for his father. The relationship between Noah and his wife, Natalie, however is strong and ultimately they come together in making decisions that affect their lives at this time and into the future.

This is such a beautiful book to read, each word and sentence carefully crafted – as the blurb by Joseph Boyden on the front of this books says “a tautly written gem”, and it truly is.

Peter Geye says that he began this novel without characters, with writing sketches of Lake Superior, and he has definitely succeeded in capturing the wildness and the power of the Great Lakes – you can completely understand the terror of the men on a ship in distress in a storm of ice and hurricane force winds as a vessel flounders.

Peter Geye writes about a man who knows the seas, a man who understands celestial navigation, a man with a natural ability to read the weather. Olaf is a man who knew what was coming, and that the captain should have made the decision to retreat sooner than he did, “we knew it was going to be a mean day, but it would’ve taken more than we saw to keep us in port.” Many ships have done the same without the consequences that met the Ragnarok. And like the Ragnarok those that foundered, with loss of life, are the ones we remember.

As Olaf tells his story there is a reference to a poet from Pointe au Baril and a wood engraver from Duluth, “the woodcut showed three abstract figures clutching the icy gunwales of the life boat in portentous, black, fine-lined seas”. Years ago Alan Stein printed a little chap book about the Asia, a ship that went down in Georgian Bay, with small wood engravings – one that could have been the one described in this novel. An uncanny coincidence – when I asked Peter Geye about it he told me that he knows nothing about Pointe au Baril, he simply looked at a map and like the name!

Safe from the Sea is a terrific book - the only reason you don’t know about this book is because it was published by a small literary publisher in the United States – but now that the paperback has been released I expect that booksellers like myself will be reading it and recommending it to our customers without any hesitation.

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