The meteorologist and the mute

Rebecca Newman reviews The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison's forte is the unconventional relationship: her best-known work is The Kiss, her controversial memoir of the affair she had with her father. The premise of The Seal Wife is equally uninviting: the match of an inscrutable Aleut mute and a passionate weatherman. But this bleak matter suits Harrison, and she renders the apparently inauspicious material credible and beguiling.

Bigelow, the central character, is obsessed by meteorology. He is driven by the childhood memory of a twister, of a shower of blue and white porcelain shards piercing a ploughed field, and his grandmother's sigh: "There's not a soul who can predict the weather." It is 1915, and the possibility of war has triggered the construction of a railroad to extract Alaska's coal and diamond wealth; the work depends on a reliable forecast. So, equipped with only a gramophone and some unsuitable clothing, Bigelow finds himself dispatched to the icy waste of Anchorage, an Alaskan frontier town.

He is an alien in an intractable land. The heavy cold and the starkness of the landscape are echoed in Harrison's raw prose. In terse, direct phrases, she conjures the feel of the tundra, the bitter winds and the unearthly wails of the wolf. Alaska is a world Bigelow can best associate with "The death of civilisation. The death of reason." Yet Harrison is a sympathetic scribe, finding poetry in the "haloes and sun dogs, auroral curtains of purple and pink, livid green coronas trailing ribbons of white, airborne ice devils that whirl from red to blue, prismatic explosions and ricocheting arcs of light, the basin of the inlet on fire, the sky dark, twinkling."

One day, in Getz's General Merchandise, Bigelow's seclusion is broken by an encounter with an Aleut. Arrested by her unapologetic stance, her black braid, black bodice buttons and the three black lines on her chin, he surprises himself by following her home. In some ways, her presence intensifies his loneliness: though she allows him inside her, she will not kiss or speak to him. She will not even indicate her name. It is impossible to tell whether she is truly dumb, or simply unwilling to betray herself into his possession.

When the Aleut eventually disappears, Bigelow throws himself into the development of a vast meteorological kite. Her place is partially filled by a second woman, who is hampered by a stutter so acute that she can only sing trite music-hall songs - nothing hampered by original thought. Both novel and author shriek for analysis. Harrison has commented: "[The Seal Wife] came out of my own loneliness. My grandfather died 17 years ago. Writing fiction gives me a sense to conjure up his spirit, to commune with him. Alaska has always occupied a romantic role in the understanding of my grandfather."

Harrison's restraint is spectacular. With a minimum, she conveys the ardour of her tormented, meticulous protagonist. The extremes of the frozen landscape envelope and reflect the extremes of Bigelow's emotions as he veers between tortured isolation, heady discovery and awe at the miracle of nature around him. Harrison transmutes the story of a displaced forecaster into a haunting allegory of contact, possession and isolation.

Original article published in The Daily Telegraph, in August, 2002

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