On a clear day from Bill Baggs Park on Key Biscayne, you can spot a collection of wooden stilt houses that hover ghost-like over Biscayne Bay. Relatively few Miamians have set foot in one, but Susanna Daniel, a Miami native, grew up spending nights in her family’s Stiltsville cottage, with the sound of water lapping at the pilings below.
These memories inspired Daniel’s award-winning first book, Stiltsville, as well as her fantastic new novel. Some of the most wonderful events in Sea Creatures occur in a remote stilt house, while the sea, inescapable, delights the characters but proves capable of massive destruction.
On the first page the narrator Georgia observes forebodingly, “It was my husband Graham’s idea to buy the houseboat.” Graham has won a research fellowship at the Rosentiel School, so they leave Illinois to live aboard a boat in Georgia’s hometown. But behind the happiness of homecoming lurk daunting problems. Georgia suffers from insomnia. Graham has been diagnosed with parasomnia, which causes him to sleepwalk and act bizarrely. Their son Frankie, 3 1/2, refuses to speak. In Miami, Georgia’s father and her Puerto Rican stepmother, Lidia, serve as anchors for a family that has drifted from place to place, unmoored by Graham’s erratic behavior.
Soon Lidia finds Georgia a rather unusual job: delivering supplies and assisting Charlie, a hermit-like artist who never leaves his home in Stiltsville. We follow Georgia as she learns to navigate a little Zodiac to the artist’s house: “Behind us, my hometown gathered itself neatly on the shoreline, as if seeing us off. To the south wound the muddy green shoreline, and to the north rose the silver spires of downtown. A milky span of bridge linked the mainland to Key Biscayne.” Charlie, who draws enchanting pictures of sea creatures, takes an interest in mother and son in a way that the troubled Graham never has. When Graham leaves for a long assignment, they grow comfortable with his absence. Georgia notices that “Marriages die in pieces.” Frankie begins to blossom, swimming with Charlie and discovering the sea-life around Stiltsville.
Georgia’s insomnia, her unstable marriage, even her temporary living arrangement — a boat docked illegally behind her father’s Coral Gables house — partially explain her occasional absentmindedness, but it unsettles the reader. She has simply forgotten about her son’s vaccinations for a year and a half. At one point Charlie has to remind her to buy a child’s life jacket for Frankie to wear on the boat. Making Georgia flawed and sympathetic is no easy trick, but Daniel pulls it off.
All the characters feel believable: the nurturing but pragmatic Lidia, Georgia’s harried friend Sally, and even minor characters such as Charlie’s friend Riggs and the pediatrician Dr. Sonia. Miami itself, or rather the Miami of 1992, comes to life in this story without the tired clichés that have marred lesser books. Daniel confidently, casually describes everywhere from the canals to the Tobacco Road bar to Mercy Hospital.
When Georgia and Charlie grow attached, one can’t help hoping, in the way that we all inevitably long for a happy ending for characters we like, that the three of them will create a new family.
However, as Miamians know, 1992 wasn’t an easy year. Hurricane Andrew begins its devastating passage toward South Florida, as Georgia, Charlie and Frankie spend one last night at Stiltsville. Then, with an unintended moment of parental neglect, the novel upends any prospect of a nice, placid ending. Which is not to say that Sea Creatures ends in tragedy. There are real tragedies in the wake of the hurricane, but not the ones we’re expecting. This, also, is to Daniel’s credit. The genuine dramatic suspense will keep many readers awake long after bedtime.
While Miami has inspired its satirical works of genius, chilling mystery novels and excellent accounts of Cuban exile, we’ve mostly run short on first-rate literature that takes the city seriously enough to capture its eccentricities without flinching. A writer just can’t roll into town for a few months and hope to understand the soul of this place. But Daniel, with Sea Creatures, gets it absolutely pitch perfect.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.