Thirty years in the making, Down to a Sunless Sea is a collection of short stories by Mathias Freese, a former psychotherapist and author of The i Tetralogy. The collection begins with the titular story, a short piece that focusses on the troubled childhood of its protagonist, Adam, and how various incidents have affected his adult life. It is disappointingly lifeless and difficult to engage with. The story is told in such distant terms as to render it unexceptional. Fortunately, this is probably the weakest story in the collection, and those that follow take off with significantly more energy and style.
The majority are strong, character-centred narratives, written with a broadly psychological bent. A great spectrum of the damaged and the marginalised is covered. Stories range from the anxious monologue of the obsessive-compulsive narrator in “Small Errands” as he worries about a letter he has posted, to the issues between the semi-literate narrator in “Nicholas” and his unsure and struggling teacher.
For the most part, little actually happens in these stories. Rather than being driven by their plots, they are intense and often challenging character studies. And this is Freese’s strength, for he creates people who are believable and sympathetic in every sense. Perhaps it is for this reason that those written in the first person are the strongest; the distinct voices of “I’ll make it, I think” and “Nicholas” are acutely observed and deeply memorable.
Those stories written in the third person have a tendency to drift towards the overly-analytical, becoming not so much stories as reports. An exception to this is the excellent “Herbie”, which was deservingly listed in The Best American Short Stories in 1974. In this story, Herbie’s struggles with his father are chronicled in efficient and affecting prose. It is a shining example of the strong characters that populate Freese’s work, and the precise understanding he has of them.
Freese’s other work, The i Tetralogy, deals directly with the Holocaust. Down to a Sunless Sea contains an extract from this book (“Unanswerable”), as well as several stories that cover the same topic. “Alabaster”, tells the story of a meeting between a small child and a concentration camp survivor. It is both honest and sensitive, without overflowing into the sentimental. “Jaun Peron’s Hands” however, takes the dark and disturbing route, narrating the desecration of the titular character’s grave (Peron gave protection to Nazi war criminals in the 1940s).
Down to a Sunless Sea is the winner of the Allbooks Reviews Editor’s Choice Award, The Myshelf.com Noble Prize, and was a finalist in the Indie Excellence Book Awards. A few dull moments aside, it is easy to see why.