Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B Freese
Publisher: Wheatmark Inc 2007
"Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards." As this motto from the sixteenth century Jesuit, Francis Xavier, demonstrates, our adult behaviour is shaped by the people, environment and events of our childhood. Few people can have a greater comprehension of this than writer Mathias Freese, with his background in clinical social work, teaching and psychotherapy. In this collection of short stories, he portrays fifteen individuals whose lives have been shaped by traumatic events or aberrant relationships in their early years.
Down to a Sunless Sea is a challenging, frequently uncomfortable read but it doesn't fall into the usual category of books about abusive childhood. There is no call for judgement, blame or pity; the writer presents a character and, for a brief time, we see life through that character's eyes, the past experience revealed but not interpreted. Those experiences include some of the darkest and most disturbing examples of humanity's turpitude, from the horrors of the Holocaust to the less obvious, but still devastating, physical and emotional abuse of children in the home.
I admit that I put the book aside several times because the subject matter was difficult to read but not to read on would have been to turn away from the damaged people that Mathias Freese presents with such insight and compassion. Perhaps he wants to challenge us to see and acknowledge what is happening around us, the alternative is to be like the mother in 'Herbie', who, at any time, could have saved her son from physical and verbal abuse and her husband from sinking further into depravity.
The book is not all doom and gloom; there is humour, courage and hope. In 'Alabaster', an elderly woman survivor of the Holocaust, isolated inside her memories, is touched by the innocent companionship of a small boy. The narrator in 'Unanswerable', the son of a Death Camp guard, recognizes the evil of his father's behaviour even if he cannot understand the reasons for it; he will not follow his father's example, although in 'Arnold Schwarzenegger's Father was a Nazi' we get a hint that some sons might.
Down to a Sunless Sea is an excellent example of the power of the short story in the hands of such a talented writer as Mathias Freese. Humankind, as we know, cannot bear very much reality* and these brief glimpses into the reality of the lives of people living with painful memories, physical disabilities and emotional scars are probably more effective than a series of novels. They offer no answers but a great many challenges to our attitude towards others and to our complacency: "It only takes a minor adjustment here or there before the living are viewed as inanimate, subhuman. Once you don't see humanity in the other, he becomes a thing, and a thing can be rendered dead if one so chooses." (Unanswerable)