Blasts from the Past: The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison (2002)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

There was a time when it was hard to get away from Kathryn Harrison’s name in the books pages. Her memoir about her estranged father, with whom she had an affair when she met him for the first time as an adult, made sure of that but I first came across her via Exposure about a woman whose sexually explicit photographs, taken of her as a child, are about to be made public. I’ve read several more of her books but the one that stands out for me is The Seal Wife which explores the nature of erotic obsession and its near-hypnotic power.

In 1915 a twenty-six-year-old meteorologist finds himself posted to the new settlement of Anchorage, Alaska. While picking up supplies, he spies an Aleut woman: self-possessed, silent and intriguing. Bigelow follows her to her house and is soon in the grips of an obsession. Mere physical gratification cannot satisfy his desperate urge to possess this strange, unyielding woman. When she leaves the town, Bigelow is desolate, his only consolation the building of a kite large enough to track the northern storms. Trying to fill the emotional chasm left by the Aleut woman, he finds himself first robbed by a female pickpocket then tricked by the local storeowner and his daughter. When the Aleut woman reappears, a small hope springs in Bigelow and eventually a hard-won but still silent agreement is reached.

I found this book captivating, not a word I tend to use very often. Its spare yet vivid descriptive writing took me to another world entirely. I haven’t come across anything by Harrison for quite some time although when writing this post I found that she’d published a novel six years ago. It seems she’s no longer flavour of the literary month.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

13 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison (2002)

  1. madamebibilophile

    Somehow she’s completely passed me by, which seems extraordinary given the colourful bio – not something I’m likely to forget. This sounds intriguing, I like the setting and the spare prose could work so well. I’ll investigate her further – thanks for putting her on my radar Susan!

    Reply
  2. Susan Kavanagh

    I read Exposure when it came out as a paperback and thought it was amazing. I still remember most of that book rather vividly. I think the whole strange incest memoir disturbed some readers. It seemed to me that she was always thought of as the author who slept with her father and wrote about it, even though it wasn’t at all a typical incest story. I will hunt down the Seal Wife. Thanks for reminding me of that reading experience. I wish I could remember the many, many books I have admired since then as well as I remember Exposure.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Quite a tribute given that it was published here in the UK in 1994! I have the same feeling about memory and reading. So many books leave little or no impression despite enjoying them at the time of reading. I hope you like The Seal Wife. I also rated The Binding Chair and A Thousand Orange Trees

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I think she did. As far as I can remember (the memoir was published back in the ’90s) they didn’t meet until she was an adult when he set about seducing her. What a delightful man, eh.

      Reply
        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          Absolutely! You can see why the critics were all agog. It influenced her early novels. I can only assume she thought it would be cathartic to write about it. Not something I’d want out there if it had happened to me.

          Reply

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