The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker: Garlanded with well deserved praise

Cover imageI 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.

4 thoughts on “The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker: Garlanded with well deserved praise”

  1. I agree with you that this is a truly gorgeous book. A friend mentioned to me that the last chapter title is a nod to Italo Calvino (If on a winter’s night, a traveller), which really excited me (and then I noticed the Harry Mathews blurb…). The sense of loss that you describe is really potent, and the way art and life intersect (and sometimes replace each other — the glass sea ceatures, the initials imbedded into the glass figures, the automaton playing the piano, the…) formed a means to explore grief and longing that left me breathless. I’ve re-read the book twice already. I guess that I’ve experienced enough loss in my own life that it strikes a deep chord, like so little I’ve ever read.

    1. The initials were a particularly poignant detail, weren’t they. I found it hard to know where to stop when writing about this novel – it has so much depth to it. Thanks for the Italo Calvino reference. I’d missed that. And you’re right, definitely one to read again.

      1. I really loved how the initials moved from Leo’s glass-making to Carlotta’s DNA strands (well, DNA-like strands) and then back to glass-making. The line between life and life-like kept blurring, shifting.

        On a different note, my heart sort of stopped with that last image of Clotilde and the hummingbird at the end of the second chapter.

        1. The hummingbird was a lovely piece of symbolism. She writes with such confidence – I hope she’s hard at work on her second novel

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