‘Blue Field’ by Elise Levine

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Jonathan Valelly

If the desolate black and cobalt cover of Blue Field somehow doesn’t adequately signal the tone of the book, the first sentence nails it: “She hung.” Elise Levine’s new novel takes place in a state of not suspense, but suspension. It is set, tellingly, in the rough space between two deaths in the protagonist’s life—first Marilyn’s parents, back to back, then her best friend. The novel ceaselessly evokes the hanging feeling of being deep underwater: all is muted, slow, and yet sensation is almost unbearably heightened. Breaths of air are profound, “metallic pings and sonorous snores… a miracle-soup.”

This floating stylistic mode is, of course, intentional. After all, the book centres around Marilyn’s hobby of deep cave diving, a niche extreme sport that attracts people ranging from adventurers to ascetics. Diving is dangerous at best, much like her relationship with her more practiced husband, Rand. The strain of diving together exacerbates Rand’s resentful protectiveness of Marilyn, whose risky amateur mistakes become increasingly intolerable to him. When Marilyn’s childhood friend Jane eclipses her in both skill and ambition, the emotional tension only tightens, leading up to a tragedy that contorts Marilyn’s sense of herself, and her relationship, beyond reason.

Short chapters reveal telling episodes: transformative dives, hot and heavy hate-sex with Rand, social awkwardness with other divers, distracted moments at the work desk. The book is carefully paced, but dense with sensorial description and thick, swirling affect.

Levine is, undeniably, an outstanding wordsmith. Her writing style moves in multiple directions, making high stakes out of small movements while turning panic into poetry. Nearly every sentence plays with cadence, percussion, or unusual analogies and epithets. Open any page to find an example of this talent: “Alien, aquanut—trussed and bound… Above, wave-stitched seams. Below, mud. Rising from that mud, the wreck, a chance to commune with a hulking carcass of wood and steel.”

Intricate nests of prose like this cradle, dress, and sometimes grapple the key themes of the book. At the core is the question of loss. Marilyn is stoic, but susceptible to the power of grief to consume calm and delay peace.

But surrounding grief is the complexity of womanhood and, somehow by default, of men, those magnetic jerks. Marilyn and Jane’s friendship is mercurial, deepening even through distance and silence. Women’s ways of being together, the mystery of being not-quite-sisters, the hanging tension between best friend and husband—these remain unsettled. The fraught competition that underscores so many relationships rears its head again and again: “Jealousy stirred her acid gut now. What couldn’t Jane do? Just as suddenly, Marilyn felt ashamed.”

Perhaps most profoundly, Levine tries to detail how one might emotionally process, or fail to process, these challenges through mental and physical extremes.

What seems to echo the loudest from this novel is precisely this obsession with discipline. Marilyn’s mourning manifests in a stoic determination to drive her body and mind into deep and dangerous places while quieting her heart’s confusion. This desire to punish, or at least push the body when the world around it is out of control is perfect fodder for Levine’s meditative, lyrical prose. “She wanted to drink then shed her gear and sleep tight as an egg high out of the river,” she writes. “[B]ut what would she do with herself then?” Challenge, extremity, rigour—these become purpose for Marilyn.

However, while grief takes many forms, cave diving feels obscure and distant as a motif. Despite Levine’s efforts to poeticize the technical details and play-by-plays of diving, which is clearly well researched, it gets a little boring to read about (though probably not boring to actually do, if you have the privilege to do so). An esoteric sport requiring travel, time off, and surely expensive equipment, cave diving as the book’s subject adds to the book’s occasional wan, first-world-problems vibe. That’s a shame, if only because it slightly dims Levine’s extraordinary flair for language and nuanced grasp of the human psyche.

Levine elaborates and meditates on what we know, that the mind and the body depend crucially on each other in mysterious ways. Like warring lovers, they squeeze and drag each other into new, unexpected frontiers, never quite resolving. Exhilarating, emotional, tense, but somehow fragile, Blue Field strikes a deep, dangerous nerve. Dive deep.

Biblioasis | 200 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1-77196-151-6

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Jonathan Valelly

Jonathan Valelly is a writer, editor, and community artist based in Toronto.