Fri
Mar 4 2011 3:49pm

Glimpses: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Searoad

Searoad (1995) isn’t science fiction or fantasy, it’s a set of interlocking stories about the small Oregon town of Klatsand. Most of it is modern day vignettes, little moments of people’s lives in the town, or as they pass through it or connect to it. The last third is the intertwined history of a family and the town from 1899 to 1983.

It’s a strange book, a book about place and people and glimpses of them from inside and outside and the way everything connects up. It’s a slim book that’s deeper than it seems, it skims along with hints and images and very precise descriptions of very small things and makes of them a wider lens than you’d think you could possibly get from something like this. I picked it up for the same reason you’re interested in reading about it, because Le Guin is one of the greatest writers of fantasy and science fiction, and I’m going to buy whatever she writes. But this is something else, something elusive that comes at you sideways. I love it. But I find it hard to wrap words around what it is.

There’s a woman who remembers text appearing on clothes as decoration and isn’t all that surprised when she sees it appearing in the foam along the water’s edge. There’s a man who goes away for a few days and finds out that everybody sees him as retired, as old, and it shakes his worldview. There’s a woman who reads science fiction every afternoon in the empty units of her motel. There’s a man who makes beautiful things out of clay. There’s a rape and a murder and love and a bookshop and celebrity and shopping lists. There are people who think they see each other, there are surfaces and depths, there is time and place, especially place, and at last we come to the Hernes, who are easier to talk about, four generations of women who outlived or outgrew their men and lived alone and brought up daughters who each came a little further.

It’s more of a kaleidoscope than a mosaic, and you might not like it unless you like poetry, because although it is prose I respond to it from the same place I respond to poetry. It’s beautiful.

The family arrived and dispersed. Having come to be together over the weekend, they fled one another without hesitation, one to the garden, one to the bookshelf, two north up the beach, one south to the rocks.

You’re constantly meeting and parting, in Searoad. I like it, but I can see how if you didn’t like it it might feel like a handful of foam, the more you try to grasp it the less you’re holding. It’s a book on a strange edge, on a coast I know only by repute. I often read it when I can’t sleep, because there’s a way it’s drifting and dreamlike and helps unwind my thoughts. So it has become for me a book I begin in the middle of nights and finish in mornings. I don’t think she intended it that way.

If you haven’t read any Le Guin for goodness sake don’t start here, this isn’t what she’s usually like. But you could do a lot worse than give it to a poetry reading science fiction avoidant friend—they might pick up The Left Hand of Darkness afterwards, and they might like it.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

8 comments
HelenS
1. HelenS
I heard her read the one about the letters in the foam at a talk in Seattle many years ago (before Searoad came out, I believe). It was magical. I am not sure I ever read the whole collection, though.
Patrick Garson
2. patrickg
Jo would you compare to something like, say, LeGuin's version of Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, or if you've read Lousie Erdrich's Plague of Doves?
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
PatrickG: I haven't read either of those! Sorry.
HelenS
4. Teka Lynn
I was very relieved as I read the book for the first time, to find out I am not the only person who had no idea how to pronounce "Schenectady" correctly.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Teka Lynn, it's pronounced to rhyme with "Macavity" which means it scans to "ScheNECtady, ScheNECtady, there's nowhere like ScheNECtady". I discovered this while passing through it on a train, to my complete astonishment. Also, Poughkeepsie is P'kipsee -- it's almost like they were English placenames that had had time to change in the mouth.
HelenS
7. GinBerlin
Well, that's because they are Dutch names, mixed with a bit of Iroquois. Like Niskayuna or Skaneateles.
The book sounds lovely and if seeing letters in foam is not fantasy, I'm not certain where you can draw that line.
HelenS
8. ruthling
I read this book on a plane and it made me sob like crazy right there in public. Beautiful.
HelenS
9. Teka Lynn
I actually found out how to pronounce "Schenectady" from Cyril Kornbluth (I think it is): "Oh, what the hecktedy/Schenectady".

And they say you can't learn anything useful from fiction.

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