Nani Power’s third novel, The Sea of Tears, is a work of fiction that stakes out a little-explored borderland between the novel and the novella collection. Composed of three closely interlinked tales and an epilogue set in a Washington, D.C. hotel sometime after 9/11 but before the invasion of Iraq, the characters of this novel lead lives haunted, both metaphorically and literally, by the legacies of their ancestors, by the memories of their former lives and lovers, and by the ghosts of dead family. As in Powers’s first novel, Crawling at Night, the characters are lonely and isolated, yearning for something they have lost or perhaps have never had, and they have come to an anonymous place where they are fated to retrace their personal and ancestral histories in memory, and act them out – or transcend them – with the other characters. None of the three main tales could stand completely alone, but each has a degree of independence (both in terms of plot and style) that requires them to be described and evaluated separately.
The first tale opens with these words: “Jedra Abdullah has no one.” An Iraqi refugee whose entire family was killed in the 1991 uprising of the marsh Arabs, Jedra is a subordinate repairman at the hotel. As such, he is uniquely aware of a threat facing the hotel that he cannot communicate: the water system is under too much pressure. This is a fact that will come to have terrible consequences later on, as well as being a potent symbol of his difficult emotional state: equal parts crushing loneliness and violent sexual need, a state of mind that Power has captured exceptionally well. His fate is entwined with that of Phyllis, a desk clerk who is subject to psychic visions of terrifying intensity. The reality of these visions is confirmed when she accepts Jedra’s invitation to dine at his home and, upon arriving there, encounters Jedra’s murdered brother, whom we know from Jedra’s dreams. Phyllis is just as lonely and isolated as Jedra is, although in her case she is isolated by her unusual abilities, by the fact that the man in her life has just left her, and by a miscarriage she suffers almost that same day. She and Jedra quickly become romantically involved, an alliance whose consequences spill over into the tales that follow.
The second tale is largely that of Kouri, a gentle and refined man who is initially characterized by a description of the elaborate collection of toiletries he has laid out in his room. Although he is from the large, persecuted Baha’i minority
in Iran, his life does not seem to have been directly marked by violence or persecution. Indeed, he seems to make a good living as an optical engineer (he is at the hotel for a professional conference), he has a love of fine food and enjoys dancing, and is “a bit too romantic” for his own good. He is also lonely, his small family all dead, long-divorced, craving a wife, and having no luck at all with women. When he notices one of the maids, Patricia, she captivates him for reasons he cannot explain, and ultimately she accepts his proposal to go dancing; their story has a happy denouement.
The third tale is about a young schizophrenic man, Daniel Espiritu. An American raised in Brazil. Convinced he is still living there, he lives alone and never emerges from his room, where he is being maintained by his mother. Although the new executive chef at the hotel, Leslie Downing, sleeps with Daniel and ultimately saves his life, she takes up far less room (and has much less importance) than the long history of Daniel’s life, his casual affair with his mother’s maid in Brazil, his unfortunate mother and the Brazilian police officer with whom she sleeps soon after her husband leaves her, and other details of their life in Brazil. Although it is all background to the moment, this is fitting since Daniel has no life to speak of in the present. All he has are these phantoms of a vanished world.
In the final pages of the third tale, all of these stories come together into a gripping conclusion that is as satisfying as it is surprising, always a rare feat. The tale that follows serves as a brief epilogue that could in fact stand alone: it is a peek into the life of Bostich, the dining room manager. He is another alienated, lonely sensibility; however, unlike the others, he fails to make any meaningful connection within these pages. By means of a few throwaway allusions, we come to understand that his story begins quite a while after the conclusion of the third tale, and we learn enough to satisfy our curiosity about the few loose ends that still remain.
Power is known for a certain kind of torrential lyricism also practiced by the likes of Rick Moody and John Updike. She does not disappoint with this book; although this lyricism is not quite as unrestrained as in her first novel, this is a welcome change from that book. There is never a place in The Sea of Tears where I feel she has overreached, which happened too often in her first novel; for another, had she given free rein to that lyricism, it would have come at the expense of character development, or otherwise it would have considerably bogged down the book. She strikes a good balance in this regard.
That said, the four tales are told in a variety of disparate voices – sometimes in a narrator’s voice, sometimes in an impersonation of a character’s characteristic voice in English, sometimes directly in the character’s voice – and what holds it together is a somewhat unusual device in contemporary novels: the narrator as a super-character. On the first page, as a prologue, the narrator addresses us directly, and baldly declares that “this is all about Love.” Annoying as it is to be told the theme of the novel in the first sentence, this narrator quickly establishes itself as an organizing presence and comes to seem indispensible. It returns from time to time, to introduce or comment upon characters, to draw out the parallels between them, to delve into ancestral histories that none of them could possibly know, and to give voice to certain lyrical passages that seem to have no basis in the perspective of any single character. The existence of this narrator prevents the book from losing all form, despite the deep forays into the perspectives of particular characters, and in the end I feel that this voice is a major source of the book’s satisfying impact.
There are occasional flaws in Power’s handling of this, however: historical notes and other background delivered to the reader in the context of character’s thoughts (and sometimes even in their own voices) is regularly jarring and unwelcome, and it seems a failure of the author to trust the reader. I, for one, didn’t want the novel itself to explain the Iraq-Iran war, candomblé or its deities, or bateria. And Power does have a weakness for using seemingly empty phrases from time to time.
However, these are minor annoyances in what is generally a deft and re-readable book. It is to be hoped that Power will continue to build on the strengths of The Sea of Tears as well as her first novel in the years to come.