The One That Got Away: In The Beginning Was The Sea by Tomás González

on Saturday, January 2, 2016
Well this is unusual. I tend to be one for clean breaks - once my lists are done the year is dead to me. I've never really had cause to question what I'd included because in those three or four days between the final compilation and the dropping of the shimmering apple I've never before read a book quite so astonishing as Tomás González's In The Beginning Was The Sea. Had I read it in time, it no doubt would have made my Shooting Stars and Other Satellites as one of the best books not published in 2015. Released in its native Colombia back in 1983, though only translated into English in 2014, it has to be one of saddest, creepiest, yet most exhilarating books I've read in a long time. Joseph Conrad meets Cormac McCarthy meets Robert Louis Stevenson with a dash or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it is both documentary and horror story, testament and morality tale.

J. and Elana are dreamers. Without much backstory, we know only that this young Colombian couple have decided to pack up their comfortable city lives and move out to a small Caribbean Island. There they buy a run down estate and start anew; no urban pressures, no materialism, no fake high society nonsense. At first it seems their dreams have come true. They lose themselves in renovations, plan for their future, get to know the locals. It doesn't take long, however, for things to begin to unravel. Elana, in particular, struggles to adjust. J. might be lost in his dreams but she is more practical and can't stand the squalor for which they seem to have settles. Business plans fail, money is stolen, the workers on their estate grow restless and the bank threatens to foreclose on their loan. Reading the decline has an added element of dread. We know from the outset that some great crime has been committed. We know that police are called to the estate afterwards to investigate. We know that either J., Elana or both have died. Or perhaps they are the criminals, that they have been driven mad to the point of murder. There is a tense battle of wits raging between the various characters and anyone could be victim or perpetrator. I don't want to spoil anything but, suffice to say, how it actually pans out is as horrific as it is banal. Chances are you'll see it coming, too, which makes it all the more ghastly.

Ultimately, In The Beginning Was The Sea is a heady warning against the arrogance of absolute idealism. Warning signs pepper the narrative; you will want to slap J. across the face and, in crass English pantomime style, scream "Watch Out!" There is an angry energy to the storytelling. González is on a mission. He wants to understand but he also wants to condemn. It is little surprise to learn that the story is based on the tragic fate of the author's brother. In that way, it is also a eulogy. There is love behind the rage; a sad shaking of the head at what didn't have to be.


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