Review: Down to a Sunless Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea, by Mathias B. Freese



The older I get, the more I appreciate the short story format (and no, not just because my attention span is waning, smarty-pants). Not only do I enjoy being able to read a story here and a story there, but I've also come to appreciate the difficulty of writing the short story. It is, in my considered opinion, one of the trickiest genres out there.

One of the of authors who have mastered this art form is Mathias B. Freese. Down to a Sunless Sea is a treasure-trove of fifteen short stories in which Freese captures verbal snapshots within the human brain. In other words, he explores what makes people tick. As a psychotherapist and teacher, the author commands extraordinary insight into the mind. But so do a thousand others in his field. So what makes Down to a Sunless Sea so impressive? It's simple: Freese's ability to present each errant character in an understandable light.

My favorites? Since you ask:

"Little Errands" takes only four pages to perfectly convey what it's like to live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (I know, I know, I ramble on about my book OCD all the time, but this is the real thing.) This poignant vignette takes one small incident -- the mailing of a letter -- and manages to convey the scope of living with the disorder without condecesncion.


In 1987, the tomb of former Argentine President Juan Peron was broken into and the hands removed from the corpse (they were ransomed for $8 million, in case you're wondering why someone would steal a dead person's hands). In "Juan Peron's Hands," Freese delves into the (just a little bit creepy) minds of the graverobber.
Two unclenched hands in a back street, no self, no name, no one, a reminder of us all. Two hands against a Magritte sky.
"Juan Peron's Hands," by Mathias B. Freese

Creepy the story may be, but prose like this is certainly beautiful to read.


(What a Magritte sky actually looks like. Just so you know.)


"Alabaster" is the touching story of an elderly Polish concentration camp survivor who befriends a young boy. The boy, of course, knows nothing of the evil perpetuated during the War. His innocence, however, lies in stark contrast to the irreperable damage done to the old woman in the camps. The story is a haunting snapshot of a destroyed life. The woman survived, but at what cost to the psyche?

"Billy's Mirrored Wall" was perhaps the most resonant story in the collection. A man reflects on the importance of a seemingly innocuous event in his childhood. Coming from a solid blue-collar background, he remembers being vaguely impressed (in a twelve-year-old-boy, off-hand sort of way) after being invited over to a upper-middle class friend's home. The modern dishwasher, carpet instead of linoleum, but especially a wall covered in mirrors were all things he was unused to seeing in a home.

Boys being boys (even in the 1950's), his interest was passing at best. Just enough to mention it off-handedly to his own mother who, to his surprise, took great umbrage to the entire event. Her hurt at not being able to provide her own son with such minor luxuries morphs into anger and while the matter is quickly dropped, it is an event that her son never forgets. In fact, it incorporates itself into his adult life-view.
What Ma has done is to put something into me of her own design, unwillingly, and here I am left to master it, or make sense of it - really to metabolize it.
"Billy's Mirrored Wall," by Mathias B. Freese

The story begs the question of any parent: how much do we unwittingly damage our children in such passing moments?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading these stories and Down to a Sunless Sea has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf. But don't take my word for it. In 2008 this collection was honored with the Allbooks Reviews Editor's Choice for Short Story Award and was a 2008 Indie Excellence Book Awards Finalist for Short Story Fiction.


Four Stars

An interview with the author at Pif Magazine.

Title: Down to a Sunless Sea
Author: Mathias B. Freese
148 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1587367335
Publisher: Wheatmark
Date: November 15, 2007


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13 comments:

  1. I used to dislike short stories, but I just listened to some on an audiobook and loved it, so I think I need to try them again. Thanks for the review.

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  2. Kathy, I swear, your feed reader must be the fastest thing in the west!

    But I'm with you...I'm getting to where I love short stories. They won't ever replace a good novel, but I love having collections around to pick up in between novels, etc.

    I've never tried them on audiobook...that might be interesting. Especially in the car. I'm liking that idea...thanks.

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  3. I have never been able to love the short story. I've read plenty, I was an English major in college. But maybe I sould give them another try, you made this collection of them sound very interesing!

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  4. Nice review my dear. I would think short stories would be the best for a mom of 2 young kiddies...that's all the time they give you! I can most definitely appreciation the difficulty of writing a short story - to convey so much in so little is a great talent.

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  5. Dear Michele:
    I do not usually get such a sensitive reading -- and a close one at that -- of my book. For that I am grateful. To give the reader a picture by Magritte made my day, and for you to research Peron's dismemberment is aces. The care you took is a writer's dream. I have a sneaky feeling you also liked Mortise and Tenon with all the references to Klimt. When you have time, and if so inclined, i'd like you to grapple with my magnum opus, The i Tetralogy, a novel on the Holocaust. I would look forward to your insights.
    kind regards,
    matt

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  6. I think the same about the short stories thingy.
    It is difficult to just stop it so short nay?!
    I have only read Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth and liked it really :)
    So i will put this is in my lust-list :)

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  7. I love short stories. My problem is, I'll always start a book of them, then put it down halfway through because I get distracted and never wind up picking it up again! I'm going to have to give this one a shot though, it sounds beautiful.

    Thanks for the great review! Also thanks for checking out my blog! I tagged you in a survey. :o)

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  8. Fantastic review. Thanks so much. I'm with others about short stories, I always want more! But, as you noted, there is an art to short stories.

    Great to read Mathias Freese's thoughts!!!

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  9. See, I KNEW someone would like this collection. I'm clearly just not smart enough. =)

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  10. Oh gosh, Carey, yes you've had more than your fair share of short stories as an English major!

    Amy - I didn't mention how convenient short stories are with kids, but you are so right. :)

    Matt - you're words are too kind and undeserved. I'd love to try a review of The i Tetralogy.

    Veens - I'll keep my eyes open for Unaccustomed Earth!

    Smash - thanks for the tag! I'm working on it (as soon as I can pry Ipod from toddler's hands).

    Beth - I think short stories are an acquired taste...and I'm getting to where I really like them. (Maybe it's an age thing?)

    Elizabeth - smart has nothing to do with it! I think it's like a novel in a way....we have to be in the right frame of mind at the right time for the book, right? It's pretty hit and miss when you think about it. ;)

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  11. Steve read this book a few months back and really enjoyed it too. Love your review! :)

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  12. I'll be reading this one shortly. Glad to hear you liked it.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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