The seahorse is a curious beast, a miniature monster of appealing detail and appalling design. Named for far more majestic creatures, they are fanciful from far away yet increasingly strange with each successive viewing. As if in jest, they resemble waltzing question marks during their courtship dances—both alien and romantic to us.
As with their namesake, the characters in Janice Pariat’s Seahorse seem adrift with heartstrings grasping like tails for those around them. They, too, move in an intricate, bizarre waltz, from lover to leaver, men to women, enemy to fuck, past to present, New Delhi to London.
Nem, the novel’s protagonist, hails from a small mountain town in India that he shares with his best friend Lenny and no one else. While away from home to attend university in late-‘90s New Delhi, Nem becomes captivated by Nicholas, a visiting art professor from London. In one momentous day Nem learns of Lenny’s death back home—suicide, following his commitment for homosexuality—and finds himself entwined with Nicholas, dropping—literally!—into his life as a wounded bird.
Nem and Nicholas begin a relationship like a brand—brief, hot, painful. Nem spends hours wrapped in classical music and Nicholas’ arms, observing the exotic fish, including seahorses, in the aquarium. This blissful, almost mythological reverie is broken only by the appearance of Nicholas’ sister. Following Nicholas’ unannounced departure home, Nem—marked indelibly now by two losses—moves on, becoming a successful critic in the rapidly blooming Indian art world of the nascent millennium. But his career arc eventually deposits him in London—within reach of Nicholas’ increasingly startling dance.
Nem is one of those nebulous protagonists whose dramatic thoughts occur with such regularity that it is a statistical inevitably that some of them will fall flat. Add to this Seahorse’s thematic underpinnings, with their natural predisposition towards a hyperbolic desire for magnitudes, and a nefarious trap indeed is baited and repeatedly sprung. That is not to say that there is nothing of value here. Perhaps aided by the singular intensity and finite length—not to mention dramatic throes—of sex, Pariat details her dancer’s various entanglements with priapic verve, the carnal couched in poetry and the flowers found appropriate rather than wanting.
Pariat is an award-winning short story author, and Seahorse does read, at times, as the debut novel it is. Working in a longer medium and burdened with writing in first person about love, Pariat too often crosses the gossamer line from heartfelt to cloying, from profundity to greeting card sentiments. For every starkly beautiful line contained within the work—and there are more than a handful—the reader comes across two that send the words heaving like lover’s chests, swollen in eye rolling.
Seahorse, for all of its wincingly romantic moments, can find itself—as its titular fish—capable of entrancement. Via its sheer beauty and delicate machinations, it delivers a Gordian knot of love as beautiful and odd as the fish themselves. Unfortunately, it will also tell you so directly, the dance not being trusted to speak for itself.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, VICE, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth, The Classical and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.