I started The Glass Ocean on Sunday evening. Twenty pages in and nothing had stuck. It seemed a little disjointed somehow; snippets of glittering prose shone out but I couldn’t seem to get a purchase on it. Monday afternoon, after a lovely Bank Holiday walk through woods near Iford Manor – too soon for tea, sadly – I tried again and was pulled into a vivid, dreamlike world by eighteen-year-old Carlotta, red-haired and six-foot two.
She begins in 1841, well before her birth, imagining her parents’ story, always reminding us that her version is not a reliable one. Her mother, Clotilde, adored her own father, an avid collector in the Victorian way, only marrying Leo when Felix literally jumps ship leaving her alone aboard the Narcissus. The couple make their way to Whitby where Leo’s family has settled and where he hopes he might find his sister, not seen since he left for London years ago. Clotilde pines for her father, turning her back on the diffident, smitten Leo in favour of Thomas Argument, a glass maker who employs and exploits Leo. Eventually Leo crosses the road to a rival, learns his trade and obsessively turns it into artistry, all the while consumed with jealousy. When she realises she is pregnant Clotilde does all she can to dislodge Carlotta, resolutely ignoring her when she is born. Clotilde finally leaves aboard another ship on a hopeless quest for her lost father. Barely noticing Carlotta, Leo falls into a depression, eventually disappearing, apparently drowned.
Hard not to think of Oscar and Lucinda with nineteenth century gangly red-heads, glassmaking and awkward couplings but The Glass Ocean is very different: this is a novel about absence, about longing for the person who has gone and about the consequences for the people who are present, all wrapped up in a gorgeously crafted story. It comes garlanded with praise from the likes of John Banville and Thomas Pynchon which for a first novel may feel like a blessing or a curse – certainly a good deal to live up to but it does. Baker’s writing is studded with vibrant descriptions. Carlotta’s voice is striking and she spins a beguiling tale. It is a very fine piece of work indeed.