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Book Review: Sea Level by Nancy Kilgore

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Regular readers of my reviews will by now be aware of my lack of religious leanings, so you can imagine what happened when I was sent Sea Level, a novel about the troubles of Brigid, a Christian minister moving to a fictional town called Sand Hill to take charge of the church. I was not expecting it to be very good, although I was just thankful that it isn’t a book that requires deep knowledge of scripture to enjoy. The only ones I know are “Thou shalt not covet” and the one that Jules keepings reciting in Pulp Fiction.

The main trouble that she has is, well, being a she. As the book is set in the early 1980’s, female ministers were a new thing at the time, and so naturally the narrow minded villagers take issue with her. The fact that she comes armed with a new vision of what her church should be like does not help matters. The main conflict of the book comes about after the local church group get a bee in their collective bonnets about her when she tries the perfectly rational course of funnelling a bit of their graveyard money into the church that will go under. I’ll be going into the main problem I had with this later on.

The other main character of the book is Mary, an artist who comes back to Sand Hill to discover her roots or something like that. She ends up falling up with a drifter called Jamie, who presents the opportunity of an exciting life that she left the town to seek out, you know how it goes. Her liaison with him leads to a hilarious moment where they have sex in about ten words: “She softened and sank, and his arms came around her. Afterward, the truck started right up and came out of the ditch with ease.” The sex apparently occurred in between the full stop and the word ‘afterward’ if a later passage in the book, which says “it happened so fast”, is any indication. By the sound of that, he’s faster than Superman. 

Barely-there sexual intercourse aside, this is definitely the kind of book where your personal beliefs influence how you read it. For example, Christian readers would probably see entering the seminary (and subsequently uprooting the family) after hearing the call of God as a fair and reasonable action and one that she could not refuse. Readers who don’t believe in God, on the other hand, are probably much more inclined to believe that it’s a mid-life crisis and a shockingly irresponsible thing to do to your family. And how much you side with Mary’s view of the world will depend on if you can take her spiritualist view of the world seriously. I actually found myself siding with Doug of all people, the husband who just couldn’t understand her calling and who didn’t leave his old job which paid well (this makes him a bad person for most of the book). Bear in mind that he doesn’t like this situation but has to support his wife’s dreams of moving to a new town and being an non-salaried clergywoman and I think you’ll get where my problem with this scenario lay.

My main problem with the graveyard thing is that the whole conflict of the book would’ve been avoided if the old biddies confide their experience of the supernatural (basically, it all gets a bit Sixth Sense at funerals) to the person most likely to believe in it, the minister. As it stood, not telling her seemed a bit stupid because as she was supposed to do funerals she would find out eventually and telling her straight away would presumably make her ease up about channelling the money into the church.

With this knowledge, their anxiety about her taking away the money making the graveyard look nice, by the way, is understandable. For all they know, keeping the graveyard looking nice is what draws the spirits there. If you change that, they might stop coming. If it works as is, why risk changing it? And finally, if everyone else can see them (that’s the impression I got, anyway – one or two people having delusions wouldn’t merit secrecy) then it could bring a lot of media attention, which may well solve the monetary problem by itself.

In my personal opinion, the book was not exactly boring (seeing as it did keep me reading, and I did like how she wrote the old women in a way that makes you sympathise with Brigid’s plight), but my problem with it is that it was very mundane. It is a slice of life book, but most of the time nothing exciting happens in life, which is also the case here. Just a lot of noise, signifying nothing. 

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