Book Review: The Year of Oceans

With November starting on Thursday, I decided to do another Wednesday review this week so that I can talk about November in my Friday post. I hope that is okay with y’all, because, well, that’s just how things are. Haha.

Today’s book review covers a contemporary, literary fiction work dealing with grief.

Title: The Year of Oceans

Author: Sean Anderson

Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary

Synopsis: Hugo Larson is a retired accountant living in North Seattle. Having recently lost the person most important to him, he attempts to make a life for himself in spite of that gaping absence. While he spends his time swimming, gardening, and accomplishing the mundane tasks of everyday life, he also has several important relationships to manage. Adrian is Hugo’s caring but foolish son, a young man desperately in need of career guidance. Hugo’s brother, Martin, brims with positive energy and a life many would envy: a kind wife, an illustrious teaching career, and a darling granddaughter—but at the implications of retiring. Then there is Paul, a serene next-door neighbor and friend who is haunted by his own loss, who goes on adventures with Hugo through the city. Despite all this, Hugo faces the heaviness of existence, confronts towering questions, embraces and then pushes away those close to him. Through the course of one year, he faces his past, struggles with the present, and questions the future.

Before I really get into this, I need to acknowledge that I am not the intended audience for this book. Really, I could hardly be farther from the ideal reader. The Year of Oceans is the story of one man, Hugo, learning to cope with grief, retirement, and the finality of life. I cannot imagine the intricacies of the relationships Hugo encounters, nor the loss he faces. I am not married, have no children, and have just begun my career. This made it difficult to connect to Hugo, and it means that I am not currently at a point in life where I am able to appreciate everything this book is trying to say.

That said, The Year of Oceans took me a long time to read. It is advertised as “a literary novel,” which means that it is more like a slice-of-life expose than a traditional story. With a central topic like grief, this is a logical format; unfortunately, it makes it easy for the plot to drag on if the author is not careful. Additionally, nearly the entire novel is written in past tense and passive voice, which initially irked me. Eventually I came to realize how appropriate this is: as Hugo deals with the loss of his wife, he feels as though his life has already ended even though he keeps living. About three quarters of the way through it finally dawned on me that the style is entirely intentional, if highly unconventional. Despite moving through the stages of grief and continuing his life as best he can, Hugo believes the best of his life to be past tense, and so what he is currently experiencing might as well be considered past tense as well. He did not ask or try to make his life go the way that it is, so for it to be written in passive voice adds to Hugo’s vulnerability and helplessness. But, that does not change the fact that it was rather dull to read at times.

Besides the fact that he is a retired widower, it was impossible for me to connect or empathize much with Hugo due to his personality. He is prideful, aggressive when challenged, and strongly opinionated. At first, his routines of gardening, swimming, and always going to watch his favorite soccer team play on TV make him appear in a way noble. However, his treatment of people is offensive. He is rude, inconsiderate, and entitled (and, yes, I use the word ‘entitled’ intentionally and consciously). Whether he is talking to his son, hanging out with his friend Paul, or having dinner with his extended family, Hugo often finds a way to behave inappropriately. This is not part of his grieving process; the author explains that many of his negative characteristics including being argumentative and aggressively opinionated are family traits, and passes them off as his personality. Supposedly other people in his family act the same way, which seems to make it okay in their eyes. I remain bothered by these actions.

The Year of Oceans does address a couple of “big questions” such as where to find meaning and fulfillment in life, family relationships, the importance of friendships and community, and the existence of God. I may not agree with some of the conclusions Hugo reaches or understand the thought process he uses to get to them, but I do appreciate seeing how someone so different from me might think about these things.

It is difficult for me to determine where I stand on The Year of Oceans as a whole. The premise, a recently widowed man navigating grief and relationships, is compelling enough. The protagonist wrestles with serious questions and concerns, making progress and mistakes by turns. Ultimately, he finds some hope and contentment in the fact that he does not have all of the answers but is on his way to a life worth living. Grief is never going to be a fun concept to read about, but it is still a significant part of human existence and so must be dealt with at some point. However, despite the book’s many good intentions and attempts at being something meaningful, it just fell flat in my opinion. I would very much like to hear the thoughts of someone who is actively exploring their own grief on this book, especially someone closer to Hugo’s age and situation. As I cannot access that in myself, I must make my decision based on what I know and have experienced.  The Year of Oceans is a valiant attempt at deep, literary examination of grief, but it is not a book which I enjoyed.

Question of the day (please answer in the comments!): Have you ever read a book which was written for or about someone so different from yourself that you struggled to relate to or understand it?

That wraps up today’s book review! I’ll have a recap of October later in the week, and I will be setting my goals for November soon as well.

Happy Halloween/All Hallow’s Eve to anyone celebrating; be safe out! I’ll be staying at home and probably not doing anything too celebratory this year.

Until the next chapter,


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

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