Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Books: "The Ocean Above Me" By Kevin Sites

The Ocean Above Me

By Kevin Sites

Harper; hardcover, 272 pages; $30.00; available today, Tuesday, July 11th

Kevin Sites is an award-winning journalist and author, who worked as a reporter for over thirty years, half of that covering war and disaster for ABC, NBC, CNN, Yahoo News, and Vice News. He was a 2010 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University and a 2012 Dart Fellow in Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. For a decade, he lived and taught in Hong Kong as an associate professor of practice in journalism at the University of Hong Kong. He has written three books on war, In the Hot Zone,The Things They Cannot Say, and Swimming with Warlords.

The Ocean Above Me is Sites' debut novel, and it centers on war correspondent Lukas Landon, who is alone and trapped under 150 feet of water in an overturned shrimp trawler at the bottom of the ocean. 

The only thing that's keeping Landon alive is an air bubble in the ship's bow, but the water level is rising, and time is running out. 

Landon doesn't know if he will survive, or, frankly, if he even deserves to. After he covered bloody battles in Afghanistan and Iraq for years, Landon's once-promising life took a steep nosedive. 

At the moment, Landon might have found a path to redemption, as he is doing a series of in-depth stories on the Philomena, the rarest of South Carolina shrimp boats skippered by decorated former army sergeant Clarita Esteban. She is a Black woman trying to get by in a white man's world, and has assembled a crew of misfits as deeply wounded as herself: a Cuban first mate who came to America during the Mariel boatlift and his troubled younger cousin; a quiet Haitian cook with a secret black book; a deckhand, the only member of the ship's former crew willing to work for a Black female skipper; and Clarita's daughter, who lost her college basketball scholarship due to injury.

Landon slowly earns the trust of the crew and uncovers their pasts, and how each landed aboard this rusty bucket of bolts, with its own shaded history, while keeping his own story close to the vest. When catastrophe strikes, leaving Landon twenty fathoms deep in exquisite isolation, he has nobody to question but himself.

Will he finally come clean about the events that umoored the foundation of his life? If he does, will he make it out alive from 110-ton steel tomb under the sea to tell the truth to those who need to hear it?

This novel is a poignant story of loss and redemption, and once of a thrilling fight for survival. The many themes examined include the effects of trauma, the pain of forgiveness, and the light of love that burns in the darkest depths.

In this excerpt, Sites writes of the Philomena before it hit turbulence: "Philomena rose on the swell of an early-winter sea. S humble, cupped-hand offering to angry gods, 110 gross tons lifted like a 110-pound ballerina. The mid-Atlantic water turning gunmetal gray as it stretched and then clipped into windblown froth. Her outrigger arms, shaken loose from their bindings, struck hard against the deck, hammer to gong, sending a bass current resonating through the ship. At the helm Captain Clarita Esteban allowed herself to glance back, momentarily, wary of the next monster that would crash across the bow. In the loose flapping of the outriggers she saw the skeletal wings of a flightless, heavy-bottomed bird. All velocity, no lift.

'Shrimping 101, Junior,' she shouted above the noise of the storm. 'Secure the damn outriggers.'

She shook her head in disgust, but knew it was no time to school hr crew. Junior, the deckhand, ducked away among the five others gathered in the wheelhouse, all dressed in boots and rain slickers, summoned in the middle of the night by the unexpected ferocity of the storm.

They struggled to keep their footing when the arms soared skyward again, slapping against each other as the water disappeared beneath the ship after a moment of zero gravity at the wave's crest. Philomena's bulk, unstoppable on the downward stroke, displaced its weight and more on splashdown, sucking in torrents over the gunwales before washing back out again on the next lift.

'And where the hell's the reporter?' Esteban demanded, once confident they'd all stuck their last dismount without injury.

LUKAS LANDON HAD slept through stormy prelude, woken only now by his nausea. The hot lavender tea the cook had given him, mixed with a teaspoon of a peculiar white powder, had indeed helped him sleep. Too well, it seemed. He climbed down from his top bunk, slothlike, timing his movements with the ship's rise and fall. Pushing himself against the back wall, in a lean-to-squat he threaded one leg through his jeans, then the other. He was wearing a mil-spec T-shirt the color of cocoa powder, bought from the mall-size post exchange in Bagram, his thick, green wool sweater pulled over it. The sweater was an ugly pragmatic thing of ropy Celtic weave, a gift from Vanessa, handed to him blank-faced on their last Christmas together. Even in his fuzzy state, Landon noticed that the two bunks below his were empty. Junior and Chuy were above deck already, no doubt, tying things down, battening the hatches or whatever it was deckhands did in rough seas."

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