Rolli’s novella-in-flash-fiction The Sea Wave begins with a curious dedication: “To anyone,” it reads, “who has ever drowned.” Odd, but eerily beautiful, I thought – and I was pleased to find that the story itself begins in a similar fashion. Our wheelchair-using narrator – name unknown – is “stolen” by a strange elderly man, but takes comfort in the fact that she still has hold of her memorandum book. It is this book, it seems, in which she is writing out her story whenever her captor’s back is turned.
The narrative, ostensibly composed under extremely stressful circumstances, is naturally fractured and complex. We jump back and forth between our narrator’s present situation and memories of her life before the kidnap. Each chapter is no longer than a page or two, but generally manages to accomplish what all the best flash fiction does, which is to tell a story that extends far beyond the scope of its length in words.
You might think that the predicament of the narrator would occupy the lion’s share of the pagecount – but while it’s clear that she is mystified and scared by her kidnapper, she never dwells too long on what is happening to her in the moment. Instead she delves into the past, plucking up memories seemingly at random. She recalls the humiliations she has suffered at the hands of her teachers, the endless arguments of her parents, the tenuous friendships and connections she has made. It feels like, in the extremity of her fear, she is scribbling urgently, desperate to create some kind of lasting record of her existence before something terrible or final takes place. Her life – even before being abducted – was clearly difficult, and yet her curiosity and wit make her a sympathetic narrator, despite repeated dives into abject depression.
The vignettes that explore the narrator’s memories are thoroughly beautiful. They are composed with a precision and a strength which, although sophisticated, never seems to forget the young age of the narrator. The narrator has an eye for detail, and there’re some observations that can only be described as gorgeous. My personal favourites, perhaps, were a pair of tales about separate incidents in which the narrator and an old man at the library accidentally soil themselves. It’s a testament to Rolli’s skill as a flash fiction writer that he manages to wrest a beautiful sentiment from something that seems superficially so gross.
The chapters which narrate the kidnapping are, however, sometimes rather difficult to make sense of. This is in part because the actions of the man who has stolen our erstwhile narrator are scattered at best: he drags her across a remote field, growls and barks like a dog for hours at a stretch, and smashes up a part-derelict house – all without much in the way of provocation. Comprehension is not helped, however, by the frequent insertion of chapters comprised of the transcribed ramblings of the old man. In the beginning, at least, the narrator doesn’t indicate that these dream-like and surreal segments are courtesy of her kidnapper, and as such they caused me more than a little confusion. Once I understood their nature, however, I enjoyed them largely for their strangeness and musicality, but couldn’t help feeling that they didn’t have the same resonance and weight as the rest of the novel.
The Sea Wave is a slight read – one that you can get through in a single sitting… and one that is compelling enough that you quite probably will. I’ve encountered few books in which the narrative voice and the sense of mystery are so compelling. Be warned, of course, that you shouldn’t expect a neat or comfortable ending. The Sea Wave is deeper and more nuanced than that. It is a strange novel, but one that – having read it for this review – I keenly want to read again, just for the pleasure of the atmosphere. Perhaps you’ll feel the same.