Review: Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore

Author: Alison Moore
Published: Salt, 2016
Length: 177pp
Genre: Literary fiction

Trying to wrap your head around how Alison Moore has written a novel with the depth of an ocean in the space of a puddle is as easy as clutching sea-mist in your hands. It is much simpler to just fall into it its beguiling, unsettling ooze, not that she gives you much choice in the matter. This abrupt little novel runs at just over 120 pages, and follows the story of Bonnie Falls, a thirty-year-old university dropout who is unnaturally tethered to failure, which also means to fall, and there, already, you can see fragments of the dizzying mechanics that underpin Moore’s quiet, and quite brilliant, seaside thriller, in which there is not a single thrill, only the compulsive need to finish it as suddenly as possible.

Bonnie has abandoned her dissertation just as she was about to finish it; a keenly compiled essay on the history of women and sea fiction, our obsession with it, the writers behind it, and the ever-present, all-consuming lure of the deep unknown. In a novel that frequently impresses with how easily and strangely it shifts gears, washes away artistic conventions, one of its most enthralling scenes is the reveal of Bonnie’s thesis, presented to us without warning or fluff and in the middle of three overlapping narratives. It’s a real The Wizard of Oz moment as Moore lets us peek behind the curtain, exposes the twisted organs of her novel, the fears that haunt Bonnie’s subconscious, her thoughts mingling with her creator’s, as well as the dozen authors air-lifted and dropped into Moore’s deliciously dark whirlpool. Be warned, however, Bonnie’s unfished dissertation, while fascinating as a piece of writing on its own, double serves as a fatal blow to your ongoing reading pile and bank account health.

This idea of the real and unreal, of boundaries and edges, of art and consumer is a constant thread for the reader to follow, and pull, and unravel. Just as we read on, wondering where the book will end and what will happen to our stranded heroine – a talented, curious, lost young woman helpless to a chronic sense of failure that has been inherited by terrible parenting and something malicious—Bonnie spends her free time trying to figure out the mysteries of her own unfinished stories, and one in particular that comes to her in uncertain waves. She has left home and rented a downstairs flat that she pays for between two boring jobs. She won’t sleep in an upstairs room for fear of falling out the window.

Among Bonnie’s discarded writing is a story about a woman called Susan, plagued by muscular problems that leave her briefly dead-limbed upon waking. Susan has fled to a seaside flat, similar to Bonnie in every sense except for the fact that she has an inexplicable body malfunction and has chosen an upstairs flat. Mirroring Bonnie, Susan also daydreams between dull jobs. She does not really understand why she has gone to the seaside. And it’s because Bonnie doesn’t know either. She hasn’t written this part yet. And there is a letter slipped beneath Susan’s door; a letter that sometimes has words and sometimes is not there at all. This is the B-side of Moore’s novel, which moves in-between Bonnie’s day-to-day monotony and the flashes of inspiration that send her to the word document on her computer.

When Bonnie’s landlady, Sylvia—the nosiest lady in all of fiction—insists on Bonnie finishing her story, both women are drawn impulsively to the Devon seaside, which is where the Susan of Bonnie’s fiction lives. A doomed finale awaits, treading—then disintegrating—the line between mystery thriller and Freudian arthouse fiction. The story detaches from its mundane staleness and slips into new waters, unseen, dark, delicious, swirling with unmoored creativity. Think something like Gone Girl as directed by Agnes Varde, and then rewritten by Roland Barthes—the biggest influence on Moore’s novel. As with everything else in the book, the ending is deceptively simple, almost comically cranked to an unbearable anti-climax.

Many will regard Death and the Seaside as boring, a novel in which nothing happens, but that’s exactly what allows it to creep underneath the skin. Moore has craftily stitched every aspect of the book with real life, from its simple, brutally effective prose to its deadpan humour and mouldy British walls. Even its cartoonish characters all feel like people we have met at bus stops and cafes and family gatherings, forcing a sudden urge to find the nearest exit, out the fire door, or the window… or deep into the endless, welcoming sea. I read this strange novel in a single sitting, wide-eyed and stunned into a state of perpetual anxiety. It is astounding that Moore does not have a sea of followers because this is writing to die for.

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