I downloaded The House in the Cerulean Sea from libro.fm because a bookseller I trust recommended it, proof that such personal connections can still help us choose the right books from a “sea” of published titles. And I’m so glad, because this audiobook provided a lovely escape from a winter of sheltering in place—while also reinforcing the power of metaphor.
Like Harry Potter, we first meet protagonist Linus Baker trapped in his own version of Muggleness. A 40 year old overweight case worker, Linus has spent his entire working life as a cog in the wheel for the highly regimented and regulated Department in Charge of Magical Youth (which isn’t at all magical). It’s only when he is ordered to investigate a super-secret (“classified level 4”) orphanage on a sun-drenched island that he discovers his own secret superpower—he can help improve a world that, while magical, looks an awful lot like our own.
We first hear about the order that will change his life from his supervisor, who marches up to his desk (in an endless roomful of co-workers, all toiling away on useless files that no one will ever read). She, her underling, and Linus all assume he’s done something wrong, though neither know what it might be:
“You’ve been requested,” she said slowly, “to attend a meeting tomorrow morning with Extremely Upper Management.”
He hadn’t expected that. Not in the slightest. In fact, of all the things Bedelia Jenkins could have said at this exact moment, that had been the least likely option.
He blinked. “Come again?”
She stood upright, crossing her arms underneath her breasts, gripping her elbows. “I’ve read your reports. They’re marginally adequate, at best. So imagine my surprise when I received a memo that Linus Baker was being summoned.”
Linus felt cold. He’d never been asked to meet with Extremely Upper Management in his entire career. The only time he’d actually seen Extremely Upper Management was during the holidays when the luncheon occurred, dishing out dried-up ham and lumpy potatoes from foil trays, grinning at each of their underlings, telling them they’d earned this fine meal for all of their hard work. Of course, they had to eat it at their desks because their fifteen-minute lunch break had been used up by standing in line, but still.
It was September. The holidays were still months away.
Now, according to Ms. Jenkins, they wanted him personally. He’d never heard of that happening before. It couldn’t possibly mean anything good.
Ms. Jenkins looked as if she were waiting for a response. He didn’t know what to say, so he said, “Maybe there’s been a mistake.”
“A mistake,” Ms. Jenkins repeated. “A mistake.”
“Extremely Upper Management doesn’t make mistakes,” [her underling] Gunther simpered.
There was that, yes. “Then I don’t know.”
Ms. Jenkins wasn’t pleased by his answer. It struck Linus then that she didn’t know any more than she was telling him, and for reasons he didn’t want to explore, the very idea gave him a nasty little thrill. Granted, it was tinged with unimaginable terror, but it was there nonetheless. He didn’t know what kind of person that made him.
Linus might not understand himself, but he is quite good at obeying orders. So he takes his cat and boards the train, riding it to the end of the line. When he gets off, he’s met by a wonderful sprite who takes him, via ferry, out to the island.
There he meets the six distinctive and supposedly dangerou children, who are lovingly guided by Arthur Parnassus—the man Linus was sent to investigate. Instead he finds himself drawn into their world, because they all “see” him; he’s always considered himself invisible. The conclusion is both happy and somewhat foregone, but the detailed descriptions of both landscape and characters sing the praises of being different—as well as the childhood joys of growing up in a supportive household.
Those descriptions did seem a bit too thick in the beginning (part of what inspired my post about Telling vs. Showing). But once I settled into the novel’s pacing (deep rather than fast), I fell in love with the characters and laughed out loud at some of their remarks. I wanted to move to this magical island, where the Sea is always Cerulean and the characters don’t know how to be anyone but their own special selves.
Other reviews call this book a love story and celebrate it for promoting diversity. While it is certainly rewards love in all its guises, I see it as a more general celebration of inclusion and acceptance. Each of us is unique, and though our difference might not be obvious to anyone else, we have to be truly “seen” and accepted to really feel at home.
The narrator did a fantastic job capturing all the voices, and each character was immediately recognizable even before he/she/it was identified. Even so, I might not have made it all the way through the entire 12 hours and 12 minutes if not for the story’s very steady bass drum of metaphor that beat away in the background, imparting lessons from this magical world that definitely apply to our own. While I have no direct knowledge of orphanages, cubicles, or missed commuter busses, I’m sure others will recognize the universal “truths” that lie behind those details. I can better relate to the joy of an adventure to a sunlit sea, and to Linus’ conundrum of working in a paradise where others would go for a vacation. (It reminds him of his office mouse pad, a picture of a sunlit beach that asks, “Wouldn’t you want to be here?”) I also nodded along with the curmudgeonly ferry captain, who’s determined to keep to a schedule despite his passengers’ lack of punctuality. Though there’s no sailing in this book, islands are viewed as an oasis. And that’s a truth that definitely hits home for this coastal fiction reader.
I recommend this book to those prepared to learn truths from a magical fantasy. It could also be a great read for anyone who feels like they don’t quite fit in. And like the Harry Potter stories, adults will get as much—if not more—out of it as the age group it’s written for will.
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