Sea Change and Thematic Linking

reading like a writer

Gina Chung's Sea Change is about a series of losses that are in the distant past (Ro's father, who disappeared on a mysterious research trip), the recent past (her boyfriend, who has left her to live on Mars, literally), and pending (an octopus she cares for at her aquarium job). The book uses memory and careful patterning to deftly slip through time, grounding the story in Ro's current life, but dipping into her recent and far past. This is not uncommon in novels, but I love how it means events might be linked by meaning instead of sequence and how that can play out in the reader's mind.

Here's a fun example that occurs early in the book:

I pass Francine's group on my way to the tide pools. It's a class of elementary school kids, all wearing matching T-shirts and lanyards. Francine's good with kids, which is why she gets all the field trips, and she gives me a wink when one of them, a little girl whose T-shirt is way too big for her, wanders off and has to be steered back to the herd by one of the teachers. "And who can tell me what a group of otters is called?" she asks. The children stare up at her blankly. "A family?" one of them says, and this makes me stop in my tracks for a second. I take a breath and remind myself to keep walking. As I round the corner, I hear Francine's voice say, "That's right! You can also call them a bevy or a romp, because they're so playful."

[Space break that includes a small, circular graphic that represents (I think) an octopus]

My own family was never particularly playful. Love was portioned out, something to be both carefully guarded and left alone in the hopes it would grow on its own overnight like culture in a petri dish. 

I shouldn't ignore that graphic. I don't have a good way of reproducing it here, but throughout the book, section breaks are not marked just by white space, but a simple spiral image of an octopus. This creates a visual bridge between sections, reminding us that even when the story is fragmented (as any space break or shift in time makes happen!), it's pulled together by a unifying theme. The octopus image creates a motif of sorts that adds to the cohesion. Also, it's cute.

But in this particular break, there's more happening.

Before the space break, a tour group of children are talking about otters. The words "family" and "playful" occur (in relation to otters).

But the narrator is taken aback. The word "family" makes her pause and we're asked to linger in that moment with her. I'm interested in the fact that she doesn't explain her emotions, but the writer still makes space for them. The sentence, "I take a breath and remind myself to keep walking," might be unnecessary in another scene; a workshop or editor might demand it be cut! But here it does the work of making the reader pause too. Ro is feeling something big and even though we don't yet know what it is, the reader is given the space to notice it and feel it too. That's powerful. It pulls us all the way into Ro's experience, instead of just learning about it from the outside.

But let's go back to those connector words: "family," "playful." 

When "family" and "playful" occur after the break, it pulls the two moments together despite their lack of sequential, logistical, or functional relationship. The first is scene, the second is summary. The first is children and otters at an aquarium, the second is Ro's history with her mother and father. The first is the story's present, the second is the story's past. The first is outside of Ro's head, markedly without explanation, the second is Ro's interiority, her processing and trying to make sense of her family's dynamics. But despite these many distinctions, the repeated words make it feel natural and organic to the story for this moment to follow the previous one.

Maybe this seems obvious, but the repetition of careful words is a good strategy to create cohesion between sections that might otherwise fall apart. 

But there's more. All those distinctions I mentioned? There's a magic that happens not despite them, but because of them. 

They're purposefully separating the two moments, so it can be those specific words, "family" and "playful," that pull them together in a meaningful way. This intention is evident in how careful the writer is that Ro does not mention her own family in the first moment. And of course there is the space break and graphic that separate them quite literally.

More important, the connection is not spelled out as a memory link. Ro does NOT say (in either scene) "the mention of family and playfulness makes me remember my own family." 

This does something wonderful! It leads me, as reader, to connect the ideas on my own. The story invites me to follow Ro's connecting thought process with her and to feel the memory emerge, just like she must, instead of only watching from the outside. 

It also makes me a participant in the story's creation of meaning. I increase my investment in the story by fitting the pieces together, without that extra help of explanation.

For this strategy to be most effective, it really matters what words the writer uses to connect the sections. It's important that they are emphasized, so we don't miss them. It works even better when they mean something to the story. And it's best of all when they evolve to invite a deeper emotional response in the reader. All three happen here.

In the first section, we know the word "family" hits Ro hard. We even linger there. Then we get Francine's assertion that "bevy" and "romp" are literally synonyms for "family" in otter terms, followed by Francine's explanation that calling otters a "romp" means that they're "playful." Thus the scene is carefully and specifically establishing that "family" = "playful." This deliberate work to define terms creates both emphasis and meaning.

But after the break, that meaning shifts. When the words come back, it's not a fun and joyful "oh, family equals playfulness, which reminds me of my own playful family." Instead, it's a harsh recognition that family doesn't always mean that–that Ro's family, specifically, is not that way. Because the reader might have expected the connection between "family" and "playful" to be sustained, a sort of ghost is created, of the playful family that doesn't exist–and so we feel a tangible loss when they don't exist. It invites us, yet again, to occupy the same or similar emotional space that Ro does.