Naeem Murr’s latest novel is a wonderful reflection on childhood loss and guilt as seen through the eyes of an emotionally insecure adult, Daniel Mulvaugh. Timid child and prone to sudden anxiety attacks as a child, Daniel found his lonely life with his mother to be much more bearable in the company of his close friend, Galvin. Fatherless Daniel relied on Galvin’s richly textured imagination to take him away from the depressing ordinariness of everyday life.
Daniel’s childhood, we learn, was tortuous in its vast silences — his mother never quite reveals her “secrets", the reasons behind her silences; he never knows who or where his father is. “Christ, why couldn’t she have lied to him,” Daniel ruminates, “made up a life, made up a father, brave and good, who had died?” When his mother dies and takes her silences with her, Daniel wishes to not remember his past anymore. He simply throws away the key to their apartment and, thus, to their shared past. Daniel’s inability to “feel” socially becomes even more evident when he cannot connect with a now-grown Galvin. When Galvin stagnates in a routine blue-collar job, he often tries to reach out to Daniel and seek some solace in a mutually remembered past. Daniel, however, refuses to reconnect with him. When Galvin finally commits suicide, Daniel does feel responsible for his friend’s death. Yet he resorts to the only solution he knows: he turns his back and runs. After all, his “curious gift,” as Murr puts it, was to “sever [his] life and still remain alive.”
Daniel’s childhood loss haunts his adult life as well. He struggles to make any meaningful friendships in his life as a social worker, and his wife, Sally, who had a nervous breakdown three years ago, is looking for a divorce.
At such a time, Daniel meets Amos Radcliffe, a man assigned to his caseload. By a bizarre twist of coincidence, Amos is living in Daniel’s childhood apartment, the very same apartment that he and his mother once shared. The shock of seeing his mother’s things, all still left untouched, jolts Daniel back into his past to confront his tortured imaginings.
Amos, it turns out, is an expert storyteller, and through a large part of the book tells Daniel the tale of a crime he has committed. As Daniel listens to the story unravel, the similarities between Daniel’s own life and that of Amos’s are too striking to ignore, and Daniel tries to seek some meaning to his life through Amos’s stories. Murr’s talent at storytelling in its most pleasurable, basic sense shines in these pages as we watch Amos tell us the story of his life aboard an old ship, The Prince of Scots.
Murr’s planting of Amos in Daniel’s old apartment is an event of such extraordinary coincidence that much of the subsequent story has a bizarre dreamlike quality to it. The many similarities between Amos’s life and Daniel’s own only add to the surreal nature of the story. Daniel’s eventual healing rests on the credibility of this one coincidence, and Murr uses that fact to have the readers accept his poetic license.
“More often than not, it’s shame, not talent that makes us remarkable,” says Amos. We become increasingly convinced of the power of Murr’s narrative as we watch this statement being played out in two disparate lives, seemingly converging into one. The Genius of the Sea is a remarkable, highly original novel, one that builds its foundation solidly on the sheer magic of good old-fashioned storytelling.