We asked Melissa Barbeau, author of The Luminous Sea, to name three books she considers essential titles, the books that come to mind first when she’s asked to recommend an excellent read.
Dear Missy Marston, author of Bad Ideas and fellow Briny Books-er (Briner?), you are right. What an impossibly hard task to come up with a list of three essential books. Books have been pulled from the bookshelves. Books are all over my writing desk, books are all over the floor. Kurt Vonnegut and Karen Russell and Jeannette Winterson and Moby Dick are pulling at my sweater. I have cheated (just a little bit) but here, finally, and for completely arbitrary reasons, are my three:
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje
The book that changed my life. I read The English Patient in my very early 20s and it shifted my worldview on what writing could be. I had grown up a voracious and indiscriminate reader—Madeline L’Engle, Harlequin romances, Nancy Drew—but this book took my breath away and made me say, oh this. This is what writing can be. It’s the book that started me on the road to being a serious reader and it made me believe that writer is a thing I could be. It’s luscious.
With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal,and rescue illuminates this book like flashes of heat lightening.
100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez
A very close finisher over Márquez’s book of short stories Leaf Storm. Solitude is a masterpiece of magic realism but I picked it because of all those yellow butterflies. The yellow butterflies have stayed with me like no other image from a book. All that colour and movement flitting towards me. I feel like I’ve caught them inside of me somehow.
The brilliant, bestselling, landmark novel that tells the story of the Buendia family, and chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love—in rich, imaginative prose that has come to define an entire genre known as “magical realism.”
My very most-battered book. It is funny, conversational, sly, and a brilliant treatise on writing and the conditions necessary for making art. Ultimately, though, it is Woolf’s attempt to answer the simplest question: “Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?” This is a book about the poverty of women and is every bit as relevant today as the day it was written.
A Room of One’s Own, based on a lecture given at Girton College, Cambridge, is one of the great feminist polemics, ranging in its themes from Jane Austen and Carlotte Brontë to the silent fate of Shakespeare’s gifted (imaginary) sister and the effects of poverty and sexual constraint on female creativity.
I could not leave this list as it is without mentioning the canon of Newfoundland writers. To write from this place is to write from a deep tradition of storytelling—it is absolutely essential to my craft and to my identity as a writer. Start anywhere! Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Kathleen Winter, Jessica Grant, Sharon Bala, Andy Jones, Megan Gail Coles. I always have Straight Razor Days, Joel Thomas Hynes’ book of raw and elegant poetry, close at hand.
The gorgeousness of Briny Books’ cover designs has inspired our collaboration with Inner Muse, a Toronto-based online accessory boutique. (Don’t miss our first instalment, featuring Missy Marston’s Bad Ideas.) These accessories were selected to complement each book’s themes and aesthetic.
“A radiant debut, [The Luminous Sea is] full of sly wit and gorgeous imagery.” —Sharon Bala
The incredible cover art for The Luminous Sea is taken from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 book Art Forms in Nature, and these hoop earrings from Machete are a perfect match. Even better, they’re made from cellulose acetate, which is natural and renewable, providing an eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based material.
Perfect for a novel about the wonders and mysteries of the sea is this bracelet, which features three cowrie shells on a gold chain. Cowrie shells have been used for currency and charms by peoples all over the world, and represent powerful goddess protection & connection with the strength of the ocean.
And match your bracelet with this gorgeous necklace, which conjures a beachy vibe, and reminds us of the richness of The Luminous Sea. There is such a generous expansiveness at the heart of the book, doorways onto doorways, but it never grows too strange and mystical and stays controlled, anchored in the physical world, with such attention to accuracy and detail, as scientific as it is richly imagined.
You may try to find comparisons, but Melissa Barbeau’s THE LUMINOUS SEA is unlike any other novel you’ve read before—rich, fast-paced, mysterious, mesmerizing and brutal at once. Sharon Bala called the book “A radiant debut, full of sly wit and glorious imagery.” Find out more about the novel here—and then read on for a conversation with the author.
Briny Books: What’s the part of your book that you’re most proud of—the scene you can’t believe you pulled off, the part you most want to highlight, the passage you’d like to enclose in brackets with a note underlined: I WROTE THIS?
Melissa Barbeau: When I was writing the book I couldn’t move past the scene in which something terrible happens to my young research assistant Vivienne until I knew exactly what happened to her and how she felt while this terrible thing was taking place. There were many versions of this passage—more and less awful. I wanted so much for the scene to be honest and authentic to the story and truthful to Vivienne’s experience. I wanted the reader to be with her physically and emotionally in that moment, to feel her shock and fear. And I wanted the reader to recognize how alone Vivienne is in that scene—and how alone she feels in the scene that follows it—because I think a traumatic event can be the loneliest moment in a person’s life. If I’ve written it right a reader can immerse themselves in Vivienne while the terrible thing is happening and feel those things with her and at the same time float outside of her, empathizing with this vulnerable young girl. And if a reader can do that, I hope they also realize there is someone out there to sit with them in their own lonely, confused, frightened moments; that there are people out there in the world who would soothe their tender selves when something terrible happens to them. I felt vulnerable writing this, and scared, and it’s the part of the book I most hope worked.
Briny Books: Was there a part of your narrative that surprised you as your book came together, suggesting that the author isn’t always completely in charge of her work and something deeper and weirder is going on?
Melissa Barbeau: I didn’t expect to be charmed by that philandering, no-goodnik Bradley. He charms his way through the book and, darn it, he charmed me, too. Many readers have told me how rotten that Bradley is, that he’s a sleeveen, that Tama should leave him, and I defend him every single time. I am surprised at the great and lasting affection for him and how willing I am to accommodate his inability to deal with life without women. I didn’t know that if I wrote a sweet talker that I might find myself falling for his foolishness. And I didn’t know that characters I made up out of my head would end up forming relationships with me too!
Briny Books: Public readings (and learning to do them) are a big part of an author’s experience. But is there a part of your book that you know you’ll never have the nerve to read out loud?
Melissa Barbeau: I’m not sure I will ever read the scene where something terrible happens to Vivienne. I want that scene to happen in a quiet place between the reader and the book where the reader has time and space to feel and process what happens. But that scene also makes me feel vulnerable and exposed, so maybe that’s the real reason for my reticence to read it. I think it would have to be just the right moment with just the right group of people. I feel like something terrible might manifest if the words were actually spoken out loud.
I am not shy at all about reading the sex scenes and have discovered that they are fan favorites with the 60+ demographic at public library readings.
Briny Books: What has been your favourite reader response to your book so far?
Melissa Barbeau: When I was writing the sea creature in The Luminous Sea, I made a conscious effort to avoid describing ALL of her. I never tell the reader what the creature’s face looks like—so anyone who pictures a complete creature is, to some extent, making her up themselves. The effect, I hope, is that each reader imagines their own unique animal. A book club in St. John’s read my book and after their discussion, these grown-ups each DREW a picture of what they thought the creature looked like and gave them to me. They were the most delightful crayon drawings and so very different from each other. Also, a teacher friend sent me a link to some kind of gruesome, deep sea anglerfish which was very scary looking at not at all what I thought the creature looked like but which she was certain did. I love to hear people describe “their” fish.
Briny Books: What book(s) is/are you reading at the moment?
Melissa Barbeau: I am a polygamous reader so there is a towering stack of books on the table next to my reading chair that I’m bouncing back and forth between. In non-fiction I’m reading The Silk Road by Peter Frankopan which is a non-Eurocentric history of the world, and Find a Way by Diana Nyad, who is a world-class ocean swimmer and the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage (at the age of 64!). I’m reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting because Matt, proprietor of my local independent bookstore Broken Books, recommended it to me. I just finished Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast which led to a little discussion, with the above-mentioned Matt, about Hemingway’s idea that art is best experienced hungry—and makes me wonder if there’s something to be said about writing hungry. On the horizon is Karen Russell’s new book of short stories Orange World and Other Stories and Megan Gail Coles’ novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club—both of which I am beyond excited for.