Bones of an Inland Sea
Press 53, 2013
Water. It moves us, sustains us, entertains and inspires us. Water can also be deadly, unforgiving, and relentless. Like separate islands all on the same tumultuous seas, the stories in Bones of an Inland Sea, the second collection by Mary Akers, are both connected and divided by water.
Once there was water where now there is none; there are only fossils left as odd, out of place reminders. In the title story of this collection, grad student Alicia and her professor, Quinn Baxter, search for these fossils and hope to find something new and lasting, both in their careers and in their relationship. It was the human remnants—Quinn’s daughter’s baby teeth that he kept in his office—that most bothered Alicia throughout their affair, the “archaeological remains solid and real, little pieces of castoff bone.” Eventually, the affair ends, and even love became something of a fossil, buried deep under layers of years. Decades later, Alicia happens upon Quinn’s obituary in a back issue of Paleontology Today, and is confronted with the natural progression of her own life. Akers writes, “It’s as if Quinn’s dying has somehow shortened what’s left of her life…A man she had loved, had allowed into her body, a man she had craved was now a man no more.”
With striking accuracy, Akers explores the complexities of both romantic and familial relationships and, because these stories are linked not only by water, but by family, we are able watch generation after generation face similar obstacles, and deal with them in unfortunately similar ways. In many ways, the reader becomes an invisible part of the story, as he or she knows the scars and traumas that started in one link of the chain, but that only manifested later, displayed in a strained and dysfunctional relationship. For instance, in “Who Owns the Moon?” we see Lesley Baxter preparing her ailing mother for her new life in a nursing home, fully believing that her mother had always been a cold, dimensionless figure. The reader, though, knows that Andrea’s life was complicated. She was, for years, in a difficult marriage with the unfaithful Quinn, who eventually dies after a long battle with cancer. We also learn in the story “Beyond the Strandline”, that Andrea is sympathetic, when she meets and has a brief, passionate encounter with Walt, who is also dealing with the slow death of a spouse. Only the reader gets full picture, and is privileged to see a mother in a way that a daughter never can.
While each of these stories is perfectly contained, and some are more intricately connected to the overall story than others, each is necessary to form a unique yet wholly realistic universe. The first story in the collection “House of Refuge” is also the first chronologically, taking place in the late 1800s. A shipwreck separates the captain, and his wife, Madeleine, who may or may not be visited nightly by her drowned husband’s ghost. This story might seem initially disconnected from the others, by time and by family line, until in “Treasures Few Have Seen”, we learn that Jack was once a treasure hunter who kept only a pocket watch, engraved in Spanish. Again, only the reader knows that the watch belonged to Alonso, Madeleine’s husband who drowned in 1886. It’s these small moments of recognition—an intricate thread carefully woven throughout—that makes Bones of an Inland Sea an exciting and satisfying read.
This collection flows. The reader is swiftly moved from story to story, from character to character, always reminded of the unavoidable nature of water, and of life. There are natural ebbs, natural rises. There is death, as in the first story of the collection, and there is new life. In the final story “Waste Island”, Akers takes us into an unpleasant future, one in which humanity has not protected the environment and allowed the oceans to become clogged with refuse. Melody (Lesley’s daughter) takes her own girls Raissa (later renamed River) and Rosalie to live on an island made of trash. Brinn Ripley, the charismatic cult leader called Father, has developed a way for his people to live independently of the mainland, using only the garbage collected from the ocean for fuel. When their way of life is threatened, Father convinces his followers to take their own lives. It is only River and her newborn son, Peak, who survive. The world around them has literally turned to garbage, and yet, there is hope. River says, “Rivers can divide. I learned that recently. When they do, each part is called a branch.” When speaking of her son’s life in the new world of their creating, she says, “When the time comes, I will tell him whatever story he needs to hear.”
The fragmented structure of this collection perfectly illustrates the way people move into and out of one another’s life, while also always being connected in both personal ways (like family ties) and larger, global and ecological ways. Bones of an Inland Sea is a smart and insightful book; these are the stories that we need to hear.