To The Sea by Christine Dibley
Copy received from Pan Macmillan in return for review
On a clear summer’s day, Detective Inspector Tony Vincent answers a call-out to an idyllic Tasmanian beach house. Surrounded by family and calm waters, seventeen-year-old Zoe Kennett has inexplicably vanished.
Four storytellers share their version of what has led to this moment, weaving tales which span centuries and continents. But Tony needs facts, not fiction: how will such fables lead him to Zoe and to the truth?
As Tony’s investigation deepens, he is drawn into a world where myth and history blur, and where women who risk all for love must pay the price through every generation.
Crime is not my usual genre, but I enjoy it best combined with fantasy. The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch is great fun, and my current favourite of this mix, although Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim books do appeal to me in my darker moods.
‘To The Sea’, a debut novel from Christine Dibley, is in the darker vein, joining Australian crime drama with Irish selkie myth. Zoe Kennett – a beautiful, enigmatic teenager – disappears into the sea near her parents’ beach house at Christmas. Her family insist that she has drowned, yet there is no evidence of this and the investigating officer, DI Vincent, feels that they are hiding something. As the investigation continues he uncovers stories – about Zoe, about her mother, and the women who went before them: tales of madness and tragedy stretching into Irish folklore.
This ambiguity between fact and fiction becomes the key feature of the book. Is Zoe part selkie? If not, where is she? Is her mother mad, or the bearer of a terrible curse? If the impossible is the only answer left, can DI Vincent accept it? The book declines to answer any of these questions, which I must admit bothered me. I do prefer closure in my fiction, and the open ending left me feeling somewhat adrift – although this is the intention, I suspect.
‘To The Sea’ is, however, beautifully written, and very much tied to place – I was reminded of Robyn Mundy’s Wildlight, another book set on the Tasmanian coast and connected intrinsically to the sea. I also enjoyed the conceit of stories within the story – those of Zoe’s mother Eva, of her grandfather Tom, and of Ornice, whose great love and folly echoes down the generations. As a selkie tale, it is as dark and tangled as anything I could have wished for.
To The Sea was not quite the book for me (at least at the moment), but it is highly evocative, and I think should be a good pick for fans of Australian literary fiction. DI Vincent’s viewpoint was probably my favourite aspect of the book, his cop’s scepticism forced to grapple with the inexplicable. I’m in the mood for selkie stories now: must find my copy of Sea Hearts.