Value Your Verbal Shocks
Someone told me that once. Not sure when. Maybe back when I was in an Alan-on group? Or maybe in therapy for compulsive overeating. Don’t remember and doesn’t matter. But it has always stuck with me. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune was not somewhere I expected for this to come up as a thing. But it did. In spades. Let me say upfront, that I loved this book. Every minute of it. Especially the children. In a real-world context? These were the children I spent fifteen years of my life fighting for because people systematically discriminated against them, but they were children. They had dreams and they were brilliant, funny, loving and often abused and neglected and written off. I rooted for all of them.
But if I’m completely honest? There were many times when I cried. The main character, Linus is a forty-year old single male who lives at home with his cat. He has a day-in, day-out existence where he often feels unseen and invisible. Now once I get through this part? I will get back to the brilliance of The House in the Cerulean Sea.
“If one were to ask if Linus Baker was lonely, he would have scrunched up his face in surprise. The thought would be foreign, almost shocking. And though the smallest of lies hurt his head and made his stomach twist, there was a chance he would still say no, even though he was, and almost desperately so.”
That is the rub of Cerulean, for me, at least. It is not just a fantasy because of the magic it entails. It is, also a fairy tale. Because for most 40-year-old adults. When life becomes that isolated, idle and turnkey? And it is you and your cat? It stays that way.
God how much that quote hurt to read. Because it is me. If you don’t have certain check marks ticked off by a certain age? It is damnably hard to just “put yourself out there and meet people.” Whether it is to make friends or even relationships. Especially, if you have any “mental adventures” going on. So, spare me the bumper stickers and platitudes. I’ve heard them all.
Sure. I am jaded. And maybe Cerulean is wonderfully naive. Maybe we clash somewhere in the middle, which is neither my nor the book’s fault. To see a reflection of yourself and reflect on where you are in the world, is the beauty of art. For me? It is further proof of why romance is a trigger and that has not at all changed.
This is not a romance issue, at its heart (in as far as my trigger issues, go, is what I mean). The m/m romance here is much more of a friendship for 90% of the book and not one that would cause me any trigger, or concern. I’ve skimmed through much more unneeded, hot and heavy, jump the gun, romance angles in other fantasy novels.
This is an issue of providing an out for a lonely, invisible existence that on the whole, doesn’t exist, in real life.
Without spoiling anything? The neat and tidy ending, in general, was another. It is a part of the above- not just finding that person and that place- but on the other side? Being those people who find another person to protect them at all cost. Those people, I have found don’t exist.
People mostly, will not put love and others before the chance of conflict. They will choose to keep their life safe, those that are already in their life and the safe connections, safe before taking the chance to stand-up for someone or something new that has crashed into their life and needs defending. I dare to say that, that isn’t just my reality. That for many, it is not reality. Especially in my age group, which is Linus’s age group.
Had this been a YA novel, maybe that would have not been so hard to swallow, or as much of a mirror for to take a long, hard look into. It may not have been so painful or gut wrenching.
The Heart of the Matter
And this is where I’m going to flip the above coin right around…
Klune has created a fantasy novel with some of the most incredible child characters that have been introduced recently in any sub-genre fictional novel. I am not a parent. But as an educator who spent eight of my fifteen years teaching second grade? The voices of these children were so spot on? I could not stop laughing. There is natural not even naivety to what children say- that doesn’t do it justice. It is just this not yet taught, by society, need to filter their unabashed thoughts.
There is that saying that is going around, with adults. The next time you think you are going to say something stupid? Remember that someone was sitting in a conference room and thought (and said)- hey I have a great idea… let’s take sharks and a tornado and make a show out of it! See, kids at that age? Don’t need that example. They just spit it out. And Klune captures that so brilliantly with these kids? I just can’t stand it.
It was so perfect that I had flashback after flashback of every time I thought I knew exactly how a lesson, or a read-aloud or a <insert situation here> was going to go and then a child said something, and I stopped dead in my tracks and didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or quit. Ultimately, it was almost always the former. And inevitably, in those moments I realized they were teaching me more than I’d ever teach them.
Thank you to Tor for an ARC in exchange for an honest review
Quick, fun story: There was a book I used to use in my reading interventions. Depending on the struggles of the students, it could be first or second graders. Anyhow, it was a bit antiquated, to be honest. But it was kind of set-up in an odd way, which lent itself to sequencing. So, I used it a bit and knew how the kids received it. I had been using it for a couple of years. Now given the above, you would think I’d know better to assume that, I’d knew how it would go every time I used it.
Anyhow, basically the plot is this little girl is walking down the road and she comes upon these little animals and she takes them and brings them home in a cage. <– see now even typing that out? I see the error in my ways. But for two years? I saw nothing until this day.
One group, I’m reading it with and while I was conferencing one on one with a student, another stops me and says… but Ms. Crosby I have a question and it can’t wait. OK- fine. So, I pull the group back together and ask the child to share the issue.
Ms. Crosby, can I make a prediction? (Now I’m thinking I’m super interventionist because we aren’t even working on predictions) … Yes, please… Isn’t she gonna get in trouble?
Well why would she get in trouble?
She’s sticking animals in cages and taking them in home.
Child continues– Ms. Crosby am I in trouble?
Ms. Crosby you have cats. We’ve seen pictures.
Me- now scrambling– my cats don’t go outside.
Child- but if they did? You’d be really angry if this girl just put them in a cage and took them home, wouldn’t you?
Child- And Ms. Crosby. I can only speak for my parents? But if they came home to find all these animals in cages in their house? I’d get beat.
Group- now furiously shaking their heads in agreement.
Group: Staring at me
Child: Am I wrong?
Another child: Ms. Crosby are you ok?
Needless to say, I let them just finish the rest of the book on their own and then had a moral discussion on how we can tell if a character was a good or bad person, and what clues there were in the story that told us that. There went sequencing and there went my belief that I should ever be a reading interventionist ever again for the rest of my life.
And I tell this story because if I try to quote anything or any of the ways Klune does the above? It would spoil ALL THE THINGS. But he captures that SO WELL and in a fantasy setting which makes it even more amazing because these children, THESE CHILDREN. I wanted to love ALL OF THEM.
The only thing that I can really say is that within the beautiful and brilliant fantasy world on the island and village that boarders the island, Klune sets-up (an excellent contradiction to the grey city life Linus inhabits, at first), many themes are interwoven throughout the story.
Not once do any of these themes feel like they bash you over the head or become cumbersome to such a beautiful story. The character’s chemistry is authentic and real. With heavy themes like discrimination, judgement, revenge, abuse (emotional and physical), government censorship, short-comings/blind eye turned to the orphanage system and orphans (especially once they age out), and bribery (financial and emotional), so much could easily get lost.
Klune never once loses the story and all the wondrous elements that make Cerulean such a beautiful fantasy in which to lose yourself in and yet, also never lets those themes become shallow or one dimensional, either.