Friday, January 23, 2009

Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese

The cover says Down to a Sunless Sea contains short stories, but absent plots, they are more like character sketches. Mathias B. Freese draws upon more than two decades as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist in creating characters that exemplify the darker side of humanity.

Many of the characters within the pages are disturbed and/or disturbing, and Freese does a great job capturing their pain. In "I'll Make It, I Think," a young man with a disability expresses frustration with his deformities but concludes that he will survive. In "Herbie," a young boy tries to do his best for his father but falls short. One of the most unnerving stories, "Juan Peron's Hands," is about someone who cuts off the hands of the deceased Juan Peron as a sort of souvenir.

There were two stories that stood out to me, as I've always been interested in stories of the Holocaust. "Alabaster," which focuses on a woman who survived the Holocaust and her conversations with a little boy, and "Unanswerable," which is about a boy whose father teaches him how to swim by throwing him out to sea and leaving him there to fend for himself. The latter story, an excerpt from Freese's The i Tetralogy, uses the incident to raise questions about the Holocaust: The core puzzle, for all of us, is what ignites a human being to hate feverishly, kill wantonly in huge numbers, revel in genocide and final solutions--that is unanswerable. (page 118)

While the writing is poetic, there were a few stories I just didn't get. Freese uses a lot of big words, but they were distracting and kept some of the stories from flowing smoothly. I typically prefer character-driven novels and stories, but I wish the stories in Down to a Sunless Sea were longer. Freese's characters are intriguing, and I'd love to see them thrust into action, doing more than talking about themselves and their internal issues. Overall, Down to a Sunless Sea is a decent short story collection, though not for the faint of heart.

Down to a Sunless Sea also was reviewed by:

Maw Books Blog
Shhh I'm Reading...
A Reader's Respite

If you've also reviewed it, let me know in the comments, and I'll add your link!

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of Down to a Sunless Sea from the author for review purposes.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Even your description of some of these stories makes your stomach tighten. I keep saying that I need to pursue short stories...this is not a genre I have explored as of yet. I am asking myself whether this is the one to start on!

Some Kinda Wonderful said...

I love a good anthology, Anna. Are the stories historically accurate? I mean, do the characters use the talk in the way people did in their era? Think in their era's mentality? You know what I mean. I think I might want to look this one up. I have enjoyed some 'true to life' stories, true crime stories, true stories of Holocaust survivors, etc. Would I feel like I got my monies worth if I purchase this book. Or will I be wondering where the rest of the story is, when I come to the end of each one?

Anonymous said...

to the readers who have left comments:The book is a prizewinner,and if you need to get a "handle" on me, go to I've been writing for four decades and most of the stories in the collection have been published before. Novelist Mayra Calvani,, just reviewed my Holocaust fiction, The i Tetralogy, at She did a remarkable job in reviewing the essence of the book.
Kind regards,
Matt Freese

Jeannie said...

Thanks for the review, Anna. I'm not into stories that are a downer, so I will have to pass on this one.

Alyce said...

Interesting comment by the author... Anyway,I haven't been that interested in this book because I have read similar reviews elsewhere. Thanks for the review!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I read this book as well and I had a hard time with a lot of them because as you mention they seem more like vignettes than they do stories.

Shana said...

Anna, this sounds like a difficult read. I was intrigued when I received a review request, but declined because I'm so far behind. Loved reading your thoughts on this collection.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your honest review. There are so many books out there, and an audience for each one of them ...

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

Glad I'm not alone with the "big words." I was actually pretty satisfied with how developed the stories were, but I had a hard time getting past the vocabulary. "Alabaster" was one of my favorites as well.

Ladytink_534 said...

I'm trying to remember where I heard of this before. I think the author might have been in one of my online book clubs?

The Bookworm said...

these short stories do sound intense.

Bookfool said...

Quite a few of us have felt the same way about not getting a few stories. In general, I found they were awfully depressing but that the author was trying to place readers in the shoes of those who are set apart from normal society and in that regard many of them made sense to me and I found them deeply meaningful. But, I still didn't understand the point or the meaning of at least two of them.

Andi said...

I have this one to review. I'm working on another story collection right now (Delicate Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff), but if I'm still in the mood for a story when I'm done, I may pick up Down to a Sunless Sea.

Serena said...

I think this sounds like an interesting set of short stories. I like character sketches.

Anna said...

Sandy: I don't know if I'd start with these short stories. Not that they're badly written, they're just heavy. I don't even know what to recommend for a first try at short stories. Maybe an anthology with a bunch of different authors?

Some Kinda Wonderful: I thought the characters' voices were very authentic, very unique. There's not a lot of historical details, though. They really are character sketches, getting to know a particular character rather than seeing them in a particular situation. It's hard to describe.

Matt: Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Jeannie: There is a dark focus to these stories, which I like, so I agree if you're looking for something happy and uplifting, there's not a whole lot of that here.

Alyce: Glad you stopped by to read my thoughts on the book.

Nicole: I don't have a problem with vignettes. I was just so intrigued by the characters he created that I wanted more from them.

Shana: Thanks!

Dawn: So true!

Trish: I don't have a problem with use of an extensive vocabulary, I just felt there were too many big words interrupting the flow.

Ladytink: Not sure about that, but I've seen tons of reviews around lately.

Naida: Totally.

Bookfool: I agree that many of them were meaningful. He really has a great understanding of people.

Andi: I'm looking forward to your review!

Serena: I think you'd find this interesting. Let me know if you'd like to borrow my copy.