In her debut novel, Gina Chung explores how a young woman working in an aquarium, grappling with loss and heartbreak, finds solace in a giant pacific octopus named Dolores. The protagonist Aurora, who goes by Ro, is in her thirties. She is the only child of Korean immigrants and is stuck in life. Her marine biologist father disappeared under mysterious circumstances during a research expedition at Bering Vortex—where he discovered Dolores, fifteen years ago. Isolated in life, Ro finds solace in her menial job at the aquarium (her favorite parts, she states, are gazing at the intelligent sea creatures and feeding the animals), binge drinking and waking up with hangovers. Her sole companion is Dolores—the octopus which remains her last link to her father. When a wealthy investor offers to buy Dolores, Ro is left on the brink of self-destruction, trying to come to terms with her traumatic past.
The first-person narrative that Chung employs is Sea Change’s strongest element. Through Ro’s eyes, readers are treated to some extraordinary moments: the shifting colors of Dolores to reflect its varying moods, the moment with Ro’s father standing waist-deep in the ocean, gazing at the marvels of the night sky. Despite the matter-of-fact language, Ro’s voice exudes a certain amount of vulnerability as she skillfully weaves between her past and her present. Her loneliness resonates and elicits much sympathy from the reader. Ro refuses to meet new people, crippled by the fear of how her relationships have turned out to be disasters. Yet a particular part of Ro hasn’t given up on life altogether. She is determined to fight for Dolores. Over time, Ro gracefully embraces her mother’s choice to move on and eventually comes to terms with the changes in her life.
Chung taps into the past in almost every chapter, utilizing a seamless nonlinear structure. Ro’s past delves into her parent’s troubled marriage, her mother’s miscarriage, her socially awkward skills at a high school party, her relationship with her Mars-bound ex-boyfriend Tae, and moments with her best friend, Yoonhee. Some parts of Sea Change even occur in the future and touch upon the disastrous effects of climate change. Chung manages all this without sounding preachy, and even injects humor into the saddest moments of Ro’s life. Aspects of the novel reminded me of Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures, which deals with a similar premise of a grieving woman finding solace in an octopus. However, in Pelt’s heartwarming read, the chapters are divided into the three main characters’ stories, one of them narrated from the point of view of the octopus, while Chung sticks to the narrative of just one character. Interestingly both Pelt and Chung portray their characters to be lost but not hopeless, and there is a sense in each novel that willpower alone will compel these characters to move forward.
Sea Change is a book that delves into depths of loneliness, isolation and grief. Chung showcases how a person can find companionship in the most unexpected things, while also touching on themes of family and relationships. Chung draws our attention, too, to the condition of animals kept in captivity. The novel raises a few pertinent questions about human responsibility to the environment: Should sea animals be kept in aquariums, or are they better off in the ocean? How can humans adopt more responsible measures to keep our oceans cleaner to make it more conducive for marine life? What sort of measures should humans take to provide more care for sea creatures in aquariums? Sea Change is an immersive and unforgettable debut, that melts the cockles of your heart.
Publication date: March 28th, 2023
Reviewed by Swetha Amit