Review Quotes: The Genius of the Sea

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"Clever and intense, Murr’s writing captures the extraordinary power of human ties." (Time Out)

"Naeem Murr has a hideously beautiful imagination and a wholly original talent.”  (Mary Gaitskill.)

"I FEAR thee, ancient Mariner! I fear thy skinny hand!' It is the terrified cry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's wedding guest, who cannot resist listening to that archetypal story teller, the ancient mariner, and it is a cry that echoes throughout this masterly novel by London-born writer Naeem Murr, his first since The Boy in 1998.
          We meet Murr's 'wedding guest', Daniel, first as a youngster, living with his mother in a high-rise block of flats, playing with his best friend, Galvin. A strange man has stopped his mother earlier, but she refuses to talk about it and Daniel, who suffers from vertigo, finds that any kind of confrontation or panic about his mother makes him faint. When we next see him, he is on his way to meet his wife, Sally, who has been living in a mental institution for a year, following a breakdown. She is asking, it seems, for a final separation from him.
          From the institution, we move to Daniel's place of work, a social security office. He is asked to check on invalidity claims made by Amos Radcliff, a one-legged man. It turns out that Radcliff is now occupying the same high-rise flat that Daniel lived in as a boy. Struck by the coincidence - but also fascinated by it - Daniel goes back to the flat. It still contains his mother's belongings - when she died, he refused to throw her things out, he simply locked the door and threw away the key.
          Amos is Murr's ancient mariner to a tee (with slightly more powerful hands, perhaps). A slightly threatening physical presence, he has strange seafaring stories to tell and a truly hypnotizing ability to hold an audience. He is also a classic unreliable narrator, like Joseph Conrad's Marlowe. In spite of his social security claims, he does in fact have both legs; he writes letters but claims they were written by others for him, as he cannot read or write. He loves to tell any amount of stories but he seems educated too, knows his Emily Dickinson from his Thomas Hardy. He talks of women he has loved and lost, men he has killed or betrayed. And of course, he is the patriarchal, all-knowing figure whom the fatherless Daniel comes to believe can inform him about himself.
          At least that is how it appears. Gradually, Daniel becomes more and more confused by Amos himself, becomes fearful of him but finds himself unable to keep from revisiting the flat and listening to his stories. And we see other confusions taking place. The initial question - is Amos telling the truth or simply making up stories? - begins to change. And perhaps, for a teller so fond of language, it is appropriate that it is a linguistic slip from Amos that should indicate where the blurring begins. As Amos launches on his last, long story about his time on a ship and his involvement with the sister of a shipmate called Andrew, he begins to slip from the third person to the first person. He also calls Andrew Daniel on one occasion, and then calls Daniel Danny. When he does, Daniel answers, 'Yes, Mum.'
          This may sound tricksy, but in Murr's hands, it works beautifully. This is a lengthy novel, and Murr takes his time, careful not to lose his reader in the complicated narrative threads. Ultimately, he wants us to question all storytellers - that includes Daniel himself, who may be in the process of a nervous breakdown of his own. The novel's modern premise - the truthfulness of the unreliable narrator - should not blind us to its classic message: that story-telling is a rejuvenating form, containing magic and mystery and sometimes, in the midst of pain, joy. Naeem Murr has given us a rich yet delicate tale, an ancient rime that holds us to the final page."
(Glasgow Sunday Herald)

"Naeem Murr is a story-teller extraordinaire, speaking to the reader so directly it's as if he's sitting at your elbow, whispering into your ear. The reader's sense that an author is carefully constructing his tale, which is so often a part of "literary" novels, is absent here - the construction being more subtle and hidden in the background, as if the author and reader together are "discovering" the story, the mysterious events from the past that have led to the main character's current difficulty with his relationships.
          What a tale this is! With care and sensitivity, Murr creates a complex psychological portrait of Daniel Mulvaugh, the people who have affected his life, and those who have been affected by him. Feeling "incomplete" as a personality, and guilt-ridden about some events from his childhood, Daniel, now thirty-eight, admits that "it was when feeling was expected, needed, directed, that something in him refused to respond." Having always chosen to avoid, rather than confront, emotional challenges, he has never been able to expiate his sense of guilt for actions from his childhood, and is now virtually alone, unable to function successfully as an adult. His best friend from childhood and his mother both died when he was a youth, he grew up without a father, and his wife has been living in a mental hospital for three years and now wants a divorce. Looking back on the events which have brought him to this guilt-ridden state, he comments, "When I think of Christ, the god of the fatherless, I think of the essential thing his adherents leave out of his life: that terrible act he must have committed in his youth to have developed his cult of forgiveness."
          Growing up in a "council estate," the British equivalent of low-income housing, Daniel was best friends with Galvin, with whom he shared adventures and his deepest thoughts. Daniel, firmly rooted in a bleak and fearful reality, needed Galvin, whose imaginative escapes into other worlds provided both of them with a way of coping with the lives they faced. Neurotic and timid, Daniel carried the weight of the world, suffering from panic attacks and acrophobia, sometimes fainting with fear, and constantly worrying about his mother and Galvin, the friend on whom he depended.
          As Daniel's story moves back and forth between childhood and the present, we also see him at age thirty-eight, a social worker with a heavy case load who is still suffering from acrophobia and panic attacks and the inability to "feel" and respond appropriately to the needs of his adored wife. After recovering from a breakdown three years before, Sally, his wife, has chosen to remain in the caretaker's cottage on the grounds of the hospital, rather than return to Daniel, and now seeks a divorce.
          Eventually, we discover some of the events from the past with which Daniel has still not made his peace, one of them the death of his mother and its aftermath. Following her funeral, Daniel had simply abandoned the apartment and his life in it, never clearing it out and never returning to it. Many years later, when he mentioned this to Sally, "it was as if he'd struck her - Her things, all your poor mother's personal things! - and he'd been touched by a terrible suspicion that he'd told her in order to fashion, from his wife, the image of what he should have been feeling, what he longed to feel, had made use of ... this woman [who] contains what I would feel if I were human." He himself remains distant, afraid, believing his "curious gift is to sever [his] life and still remain alive."
          Then, into his life, comes Amos Radcliffe, an elderly client, who is now living in the same apartment Daniel and his mother once shared. Most importantly, as Daniel discovers when he calls on him, he's living with all the furniture and possessions which Daniel left behind. As Daniel continues to visit Amos, Amos tells him stories of his life as a sailor, the people he's met, the sins he's committed, and the guilt he's felt, and the parallels between his own life and that of Daniel are unmistakable. Returning again and again, Daniel finds that "Amos's voice, in this place, had ... become a kind of refuge [for Daniel]. It cohered him ..." Amos himself, however, is also seeking some kind of atonement for guilt, telling Daniel, "I'm on my knees. I'm at my last stand ... I'm giving myself up to you."
          As Amos continues his story and the nature of his crime is revealed to Daniel, and as Daniel continues to try to make some connection again with Sally and with his acquaintances from work, the reader observes their parallel searches for love and communication and their mutual need to confront the past and themselves. Daniel believes that Amos is trying to make his own crime "live in Daniel. Moreover, to make it live, not as an isolated act but as the darkness at the heart of love." But he finds himself "filled with a sense of Amos's fortitude ... [Amos] had chosen to attempt again and again, to give life to - to draw life from - what had destroyed him."
          Some readers may question whether or not Amos is "real," or if he is a figment of Daniel's limited imagination, but that is really not important. Daniel himself believes he is real, and the reader, who has pinned his/her hopes on Daniel's ability to learn from the past through Amos's stories and insights, accepts this. The parallels between their lives are unmistakable, the coincidences are extraordinary, and the similarities in their relationships with others are clear. Murr has created a novel of intense feeling, and in his depiction of lost opportunities and lost chances at communication, one of immense sadness. He stirs the reader's sympathy for his characters and ultimately, the reader goes way beyond the mere "suspension of disbelief" to share in Daniel's life.
          Murr is able to accomplish this literary magic not only because of his sensitive psychological insights, but also because of his finely developed style. His observations are acute, and his descriptions, sometimes appearing almost as "throw-aways," are unique. He describes a group of men as having "simple lizard brains; they had to blink to swallow their food," a woman as "an impeccably maintained cul-de-sac of feeling." Description here is often used to advance the plot and heighten the psychological suspense. At one point, when Amos is talking about his difficult relationship with his mother and his desire to know his own father, Daniel thrusts his hand between the cushions of the old sofa on which he used to sit with his friend Galvin, and finds "dried-out bits of tangerine skin, the broken limbs of toy soldiers, and the little balls of spit-dampened sweet wrappers he and Galvin would flick at each other," reminding the reader of Daniel's similar relationships.
          The dialogue, through which Murr reveals much of the story, is lively and natural, sometimes filled with black humor. The ironies, both in plot and character, are striking, and Murr's comments about the nature of imagination and the nuances of language are insightful. This is a beautifully wrought, carefully constructed, and totally absorbing novel about selfhood, our need to deal with our pasts and our guilt, and the role of imagination in making life bearable. Powerful, stunning, and ultimately hopeful, this novel is a thought-provoking can't-put-it-downer." (Reviewed by Mary Whipple June 29 2003 for

"Part Henry James, part Joseph Conrad, The Genius of the Sea is a brilliant tale within a tale. Daniel Mulvaugh is a burnt-out social worker whose wife has just been released from a mental institution, though it is obvious that Daniel is the crazy one. Called to investigate a possible welfare fraud, Daniel returns to the flat where he was raised by his depressed mother and is surprised to find it furnished just as it was on the day she died. Mesmerized by the setting, Daniel stays to hear the current occupant’s story of his seafaring life and finds himself taken back, as though this story might be the key to his own. Like Daniel, the reader will be enthralled by this captivating story of psychological drama and unintended treachery." (CFR for Booksense)

"In The Genius of the Sea, Naeem Murr has created a dazzling and unforgettable Scheherazade in the character of Amos Ratcliff, who spins out one hypnotic, haunting tale after another as the spellbound narrator (like the spellbound reader) searches to understand the shadowed past. A brilliant and inventive exploration of the power of storytelling."  (Marly Swick, author of Evening News.)

"The Genius of the Sea is a richly textured and slyly humorous novel about the nature of despair and the search for release.  As Daniel Mulvaugh pursues an ultimate understanding, this keenly conceived, intimate, and compelling story embraces truth head on, with a constancy that is both bold and admirable.”  (Fred Leebron, author of In the Middle of All This)

"Both thickly textured and pleasingly straight-forward, this wonderful story is filled with keenly observed insights and intelligence." (Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle)

"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.” (© 2003 by Poornima Apte for Curled Up With a Good Book

"In Naeem Murr's The Genius of the Sea, the mysterious Amos recounts outlandish voyages of adventure, but are they true? Is he a real man, a con artist, a ghost? The story begins in an ordinary British living room, where 11-year-old Daniel plays games about monsters with a school friend, half of his mind on his mother, who is crying in the kitchen. In this emotionally complex book, Murr plays with time frames, examining life as a series of possibilities, using stories within stories to examine our perceptions of reality." (Susie Maguire, Best of the Summer Reading, Scotland on Sunday.)

"Amos’s story, which eventually takes over the novel, is reminiscent of Isak Dinesen, cadenced and archetypal . . . a queer, mesmerizing hybrid of a book . . . the novel is a notable, highly original work."  Publishers Weekly (America)