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The Year of Oceans
by Sean Anderson
Riversong Books, 2018
⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆
The verdict: Gripping and emotional—a portrait of a grieving man and a mirror for those willing to look.
To be completely honest, I almost passed on The Year of Oceans for one reason: I didn’t want to be sad. A drama about a man dealing with grief after the death of his spouse? Normally my fun reads are mysteries and thrillers. Yet I gave it a chance, and I’m so glad I did. Anderson’s novel is far from the melodrama I thought it’d be. Told in short vignettes over the course of a year, punctuated with flashbacks to life before the loss, the story’s in small enough bites to digest without sacrificing the gravity owed to the circumstance. So many novels of this genre are about the post-diagnosis bucket list or the woman on her deathbed, making it strangely refreshing to see a focus on life after tragedy. This is the kind of book that can be read in a day or put down and picked up again over a series of weeks—like grieving itself, ready to move at the reader’s own pace.
Retired accountant Hugo Larson is struggling to cope with his wife’s recent passing. Irritable and alone, he finds the only thing harder than filling the void is talking about what he’s lost. Hugo’s long-time friend Paul and brother Martin make every effort to reach out, while all the while Hugo becomes more estranged from his aimless son, Adrian. In a year of chess matches, jazz music, swimming laps, and long talks about life, Hugo battles his own inertia and growing family rifts. As drinking and despair set in, Hugo flounders to make amends, wondering if life can ever give back instead of only take away.
“The giant field of flowers is all well and good…but isn’t it nice to have some flowers in your own little yard? Isn’t it nice to be able to have something smaller, more manageable to work with? That’s how I feel about my life. You and I can spend an afternoon here, looking at flowers, but when we go home we spend ninety-nine percent of our time with our own little gardens, and you don’t see me complaining.”
The one issue with meeting a man already mired in grief is that I had no chance to see his bright side. From the outset, Hugo himself is difficult to like. He’s whiny and indecisive, surprisingly crotchety for a man only in his 60s, and his career as an accountant for a vacuum company seems to have taught him how to suck the life out of anyone. At one point Hugo has an awkward encounter with a musician and thinks, “How can a jerk make such beautiful music?” Not sure if the author intended that as a central question of the novel, but it works—can Hugo the Jerk ever make something beautiful in his life? Thankfully, Anderson provides a healthy cast of supporting characters whose hopes and personalities can sustain the reader while Hugo works on himself. Another little gripe—although the tale’s set in Seattle, some details are oddly generic, perhaps intended to make the story timeless but that instead end up creating distance with the reader. Hugo spends a good portion of the novel following a nameless soccer club that’s only ever referred to as “his team.” Overall, The Year of Oceans is both reminiscent and thought-provoking, challenging readers to live in light of their sorrows. Recommended for those with more life experience, but a general audience can still find plenty of takeaways.
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