Mathias Freese kindly sent me Down To a Sunless Sea to review a while ago. It has taken me some time to read it, mainly because it’s a collection of fifteen short stories, covering a number of difficult topics and I have found it quite painful to read. I don’t know if I can really do justice to these stories. Mathias Freese has worked as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist for 25 years and these stories are full of dark and dangerous situations.
First of all I like the title – taken from Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, inspired by an opium induced dream. But a sunless sea is a dreary, lifeless place in contrast to the pleasure dome in Xanadu and the sacred river Alph and as soon as I started reading the title story I realised why Freese chose that title as I was plunged into the fearful world of Adam, scared of most things and living “an intensely solitary childhood”, feeling detached and
“as though he is photographing himself behind a schizoid lens, for he is never in himself observing himself – holding the cap gun, for one. Rather he is Adam staring at Adam from afar, the nether camera-work of a dream.”
As I was reading the stories I began to wonder just what it is I expect from my reading. Sometimes I just want to be entertained and I didn’t find these stories entertaining at all. Sometimes I want to be taken out of myself and on this level they definitely work – there is one story that I could relate to a little bit and that is Little Errands in which the narrator agonises over whether or not he/she (I’ll say he from now on) has posted some letters, relating this to times when he’s not been sure if he turned off the car radio and will return to find a dead car battery. I’ve done something similar (well not the car radio) only to find that I haven’t posted a letter or I didn’t set the cooker timer and the chicken is still uncooked.
Some of the other stories are so sad and haunting, such as Alabaster – a little boy meets an old woman, a survivor of the Holocaust, and her daughter sitting on a wooden bench on a sidewalk. Clearly, they are sad – he thinks of them in later life seeing them as:
“… Egyptian statuary, totemic, to be viewed and admired, but not to be engaged, as if what they were or had been exposed to precluded any real human contact. This small family endured a strange exile.”
The old woman frightens him a little with her strangeness and he sees the number tattoed on her arm – her arms had been beautiful as a child, like alabaster. Inside she is still that beautiful girl with alabaster arms, although now she feels as though she’s living someone else’s life.
I have to say that I found these stories quite disturbing and unsettling, which is not a bad thing, but don’t expect any cosy, comforting stories. See here for an interview with the author.