book review, Boston, Britain, conflict avoidance, evocative prose, fragmented narrative, historical atmosphere, historical fiction, Laura Spence-Ash, literary fiction, restrained characters, sibling rivalry, surrogate family, twentieth century, United States, World War II
Review: Beyond That, the Sea, by Laura Spence-Ash
Celadon, 2023. 348 pp. $28
In 1940, as London’s taking a beating from German bombs, Beatrix Thompson’s parents make a difficult, painful decision, sending her, at age eleven, to live out the war with a family near Boston. How this evacuation happens isn’t explained—you’re asked to take it on trust, and apparently, the historical record supports it—but the rest unfolds as naturally as you please.
Landing among the Gregory family, Bea, an only child, now lives with two brothers—William, thirteen, and Gerald, nine. Ethan, their father, is somewhat withdrawn and controlling, a schoolmaster who takes himself too seriously and never looks at his wife, Nancy, long enough to realize he’s stifling her.
But Nancy, apparently the prime mover behind Bea’s presence in their home, is warm and attentive. Aside from tending the boys, she loves nothing better than to care for the girl, whether that means baking cookies or muffins, shopping for a new dress, tucking her in at night, or shepherding her past the social hurdles of a new country.
Just as Bea represents the daughter Nancy always wanted, Nancy’s the kinder, more demonstrative mother Bea has never had. But the girl understands that the life she now enjoys derives partly from the Gregorys’ financial resources, greater than her parents’, and American peacetime plenty, at which her eyes pop.
However, there’s more: the Gregorys also know how to have fun in ways Bea has never experienced. The high point comes during the summer, when the family vacations in Maine, in a house on an island all by itself. The girl learns to eat lobster, to swim, to bake, and to hold her own against two boys competing for her attention.
Consequently, you have to wonder what will happen when America joins the war and again, when Bea returns to London.
I like this premise, which offers plenty of chances for conflict, as with how her parents feel reading her letters; the boys’ sibling rivalry; and Nancy’s instant, consuming love for Bea, which grates on her prissy husband. Nevertheless, I like Beyond That, the Sea less than I wanted to.
Still, there are pleasures here, and first among these is the prose. It’s spare, economical, understated, creating mood and feeling in a few words, as with this early passage in which Bea struggles to write her parents:
She wants to tell them about the colors here: the way the yellow leaves cover the ground under the trees; the tiny purple flowers on the wallpaper on her bedroom wall; the golden raspberries from the garden that ooze out of the breakfast muffins. But she can never find the words. Or the words are there but it feels wrong to share them. She imagines the two of them sitting on the couch in the dark flat . . . . Or she sees them heading to the shelter beneath their building, to their spot a few feet from the unsteady pine steps. The smell of urine and the skittering of the rats.
That economy extends to the narrative, which spans decades lightly, in an impressionistic way. Chapters last only two or three pages, each through the eyes of a different character—seven third-person narrators during the war years, from both sides of the Atlantic. In keeping with the understated approach, Spence-Ash seems to want the reader to think, to enter the story. I want that too.
But I don’t think she succeeds. The terse chapters can be frustrating—I want to know more, see more—and many skip around conflict rather than show it. Often, they begin after a confrontation that a previous chapter has set up, revealing the characters’ reactions to what has happened, a lot of telling after the fact. I have trouble entering a narrative like that, let alone get cozy in it.
The storytelling leaves the outside world at a distance too. Even in the London scenes, the war doesn’t seep into minds or souls; and after America joins the fight, the atmosphere around Boston changes very little. I like my historical fiction to put me up close to the mood and mindset of the time, if not the action. That doesn’t happen here.
In a way, the manner in which the narrative avoids conflict, historical or personal, suits the characters, practically none of whom have a clue how to connect, and who’d rather dance around a point of contention instead of facing it. That’s frustrating too.
The tight-lipped restraint would work better if the reader glimpsed what the characters wanted but couldn’t ask for. But Spence-Ash’s scenes, though they reveal what’s happening in a particular moment, feel transitory, skimming the surface. As a result, I don’t see these characters’ inner lives.
For instance, William, the older Gregory brother, appeals to Bea for his intent to go places, be someone. He’s restless, unsatisfied, passionate, angry. But what would going places look like? He never says; he just wants to be different from his parents.
Accordingly, Beyond That, the Sea, though poignant in moments, never builds for me. I sense no crescendo, no rush of feeling, and no particular immediacy. It’s an interesting story, but I’m not compelled.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this commentary appears in different, shorter form.