Of the macabre, the artistic and the fantastical {Sea Lovers: Selected Stories by Valerie Martin}

Of the macabre, the artistic and the fantastical. 

About Sea Lovers: Selected Stories by Valerie MartinFor four decades Valerie Martin has been publishing novels and stories that demonstrate her incredible range as a writer, moving between realism and fantasy while employing a voice that is at once whimsical and tragic.

The twelve stories in this collection showcase Martin’s enviable control, precision, and grace and are organized around her three fictional obsessions—the natural world, the artistic sphere, and stunning transformations. In “The Change,” a journalist watches his menopausal wife, an engraver, create some of her eeriest and most affecting works even as she seems to be willfully destroying their marriage. In “The Open Door,” an American poet in Rome finds herself forced to choose between her lover and a world so alien it takes her voice away. “Sea Lovers” conjures up a hideous mermaid whose fatal seduction of a fisherman provides better reason than Jaws for staying out of the water. In “The Incident at Villedeau” a respected gentleman confesses to killing his wife’s former lover, an event that could be construed as an accident, an impulsive act, or a premeditated crime. Exploring themes of obsession, justice, passion, and duplicity, these drolly macabre stories buzz with tension.

My two cents

This is my short story comeback book for the year! And, wow, what a great collection! My first encounter with Valerie Martin and I am not only impressed but extremely excited to look up more of her work. There are three sections (each with four short stories and quick one-liners) corresponding to Martin's "fictional obsessions":

Among the Animals - stories that deal with animals and how humans lead their own lives alongside them. What is it about animals that we either love them more than the human variety or we simply forget about them (wait ... this sounds familiar). Penned early in her career, Martin described these stories "innocent, unguarded, and sometimes uncouth."
  • Spats - How a couple's shared dog becomes the metaphor of their broken relationship.
  • The Cat in the Attic - A pet cat becomes the object of affection of a woman who plays her husband and her lover like pawns.
  • The Consolation of Nature - When killing a horrendously monstrous rat is the end-all and be-all of a family's existence.
  • The Freeze - Will this new guy be this middle-aged woman's new beau?
Among the Artists - stories that highlight the saying "Art saves your life, art ruins your life" which Martin undertook writing in the 1990s when she lived in Rome. 
  • His Blue Period - In his quest for artistic success, a man turns blind to something beautiful. 
  • Beethoven - Ah, to be young, idealistic and an artist: sell out or hold on?
  • The Unfinished Novel - Old flames' paths cross once again and old hurts, envies and an unfinished novel come are rekindled. 
  • The Open Door - Shall this poet leave the safety and politics in the US or throw all caution to the wind and join her dancer-lover to teach in romantic Italy?
Metamorphosis - stories inspired by the magical world of animal and human forms come together, inspired by Martin's childhood fascination for the mythical.
  • The Change - A woman's menopausal years colour the creation of some her greatest art and wreak havoc on a relationshoip. 
  • Sea Lovers - A mermaid's fatal seduction of a fisherman.
  • The Incident at Villedeau - How a respected gentleman gets away with murder ... or is it?
  • Et in Acadiana Ego - An unconventional friendship between woman ... and centaur.
It's interesting to see Martin's evolution as a writer while going through this book. I very much enjoyed the first stories and they got better and better ...  and the last one ends this collection on a high note.

My favourites

I enjoyed the entire collection for their variety, their brevity, and Martin's wonderful storytelling.

Martin is able to get into people's minds and tells it like it is -- the artist stories really highlight her skill. But what I absolutely loved about this collection is how she melds fantasy and reality effortlessly in the last section; she had shades of magical realism yet her almost whimsical treatment of the macabre reminds me slightly of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected.

Of the three groupings -- and because I'm not much of a pet person -- the second and third sets really made an impression on me. I found the first set of heavily pet death-centric rather odd. The second set felt much more solid and I loved how Martin delves into artistic angst. The last section really ramped thing up and I particularly love how she brings the mystical and magical into our realities.

The first story that very much resonated with me was His Blue Period, an obvious nod to Pablo Picasso's Blue Period which in sum, for me, was a poignantly tragic love story. I also loved The Unfinished Novel because it drives home the point that talent can be both a blessing and a curse, and that people are simply not stupid to not recognize true talent. My absolutest favourite is the last story because of how Martin is able to weave such a lovely story out of Acadiana mythology.

Cover love and an uh-oh

The cover really sold this to me. I was already onboard with the fact that I was getting short stories but the cover is a work of art, both front and back, are gorgeously illustrated diptychs

However, if based on the cover you're expecting tales of mermaids or of the sea, sorry, there is only one such story, and it wasn't one I particularly liked. It's unfortunate that the front cover illustration isn't the best of the stories.

Verdict: I loved this little collection by Valerie Martin and recommend it highly to anyone who loves shorts! I confess that this is the first time I have come across her work and reading how richly awarded she is only makes me more excited to read more of her books (the Kafka Prize of Mary Reilly, Britain's Orange Prize for Property).

I received a copy from the publisher for honest review consideration.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall