The world is divided into invisible particles of earth, air, fire, and water, claimed poet-philosopher Empedocles: the warring powers of Love and Strife create good and evil as Love brings the particles together and Strife forces them apart. Hippocrates connected the four elements to the bodily humors, an idea seized on in the middle ages and carried into the present. Stacey D’Erasmo, in her rich, complex new novel, A Seahorse Year, uses the elements to illuminate characters driven by Love and Strife, desiring both intimacy and escape. D’Erasmo hints at the traditional elements and humors, and also creates a new set—Blood, Breath, Bone, and String. Each of the main sections of the book is named for one of these new elements, and each connects to a moment of terror, waste, or hope.
When Christopher—a creative, thoughtful, schizophrenic teenager—runs away, his parents’ lives begin to unravel, and they search for him in an overlapping set of San Franciscan and rural Californian worlds. We thoroughly inhabit the inner and outer lives of each character: Chris’s mother, Nan, a bookstore manager and dedicated gardener; Marina, Nan’s elusive, philandering partner, a painter; Chris’s birth father, Hal, an accountant and former “orchid” in the “semifamous, cult performance, glam rock band, the Venus Flytrap”; and Chris’s energetic, ingenious girlfriend, Tamara.
In a gripping series of events punctuated by well-intentioned decisions, Chris’s family and friends struggle to save him, but all the options resemble medieval medicine in their torturous ineffectiveness. Meanwhile, Chris keeps running away. The strain affects the adults’ love and work lives as Marina addictively pursues an affair with a young painter; Hal falls for Dan, a mediator he hopes can help them; and Nan, stripped down to a wolfish motherhood, takes off after Chris.
The novel examines each of the characters’ daylight and shadow selves and the ways each tries to fight off chaos through pattern-making: artistic, numerical, natural, and, finally, the disjointed, frighteningly off-kilter logic of Chris’s thinking, his elaborate mapmaking, his belief that he can breathe underwater, like his beloved fish. His unstitched theories of what is happening to him show D’Erasmo’s insight into the realities of mental illness.
Like Tea, D’Erasmo’s first novel (Algonquin Books, 2000), A Seahorse Year examines the consequences of mental illness for the family of the sufferer. In Tea, Isabel Gold, growing up, works to understand her mother’s suicide while developing her sexual and artistic identities. The straightforward sectioning of Tea—“Morning,” “Afternoon,” and “Evening”—has taken on complexity and associative richness in A Seahorse Year. D’Erasmo retains her earlier strengths—the clear grace of her prose and a gift for creating complex, believable human beings—while adding a strong narrative drive: the endangered character is a living child, not an already-lost parent. This gives urgency to the forward movement of the book, and weight to the stories of the characters’ pasts and the question of how they all reached this point.
Throughout the novel, the characters fight to balance their elemental natures and the tensions between love and avoidance. Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours, or Margaret Drabble in The Needle’s Eye (literary cousins to A Seahorse Year), D’Erasmo uses her own sense of pattern to contain, reflect, and make bearable a set of painful and truthful human stories.