Released in late February by St. Martin’s Press, The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont is a book I’ve been eagerly anticipating for over a half year. Last summer I attended the University of Iowa Writing Festival and took a class with Dermont. I learned a lot about my writing and myself and, slowly, learned more about her. She mentioned her upcoming book, but left it at that. I respected her humility, and most of all, I really liked her class. The other students were cool but it was because of her that I got so much out of my experience in Iowa. Her intelligence and wit, attention to details, and spontaneity were a breath of fresh air. She, in short, made me feel comfortable about being a “writer,” and I’ll always be grateful to her for that.
Bias aside, I read Dermont’s debut novel in ways that I could only hope to those many months back in a horrifically humid classroom in Iowa City. The story revolves around Jason Prosper and his life of privilege, complete with boarding schools, sailing, and New England summer estates. It’s an already well-mined topic, but Dermont’s intelligent, piercing prose strikes through any possible clichés of the disaffected youth trying to find himself amongst an embarrassment of riches.
Set in 1987 and using the stock market crash as a metaphor for the abuses of class privilege, Dermont tackles many rich, deeply textured topics all at once. The balancing act alone is breathtaking. The narrative mirrors the confusion and spontaneity of the teenage years with a prose style that are at turns provocative and restrained, utterly, heartbreakingly real and wildly original.
This tale of the ambiguities that come along with entering adulthood, much less one filled with the expectations of the elite, is infused with a compassionate yet unflinching eye. The characters within the story are relatable but wholly fictional, intricately structured personalities. The complexity within these pages is intellectually stimulating and lends itself to her writing style, allowing Dermont to show off her entire toolbox of tricks at all the right moments.
The immediacy is clear from the first page, with the choice to tell the story in the first person. As the plot unfolds and tensions rise, Dermont seems to step up to the challenge and continue to navigate this churning emotional engine forward.
The scenes of sailing, told with simple elegance but anchored in detailed sailing terms, show off Dermont’s prodigious gifts for linguistic majesty. Consider this section, early on in the book,
As I stared at the waterfront, the color and the movement on the ocean created an optical illusion in my mind. The entire school appeared to float on water, like a life raft. I felt weightless. The rhythm of the waves reminded me of naval hymns, of songs about peril and rescue.
These scenes, sprinkled in amongst the pressures of Jason’s world on shore, provide a sense of safety. Away from shore, far from their problems, we see Jason and Cal, temporarily freed from all of the baggage of youth, pushing ahead, trying to test the limits of what’s possible. It’s exhilarating in its detail and it reinforces the still fragile mindset of our narrator.
Dermont’s ability to put on jeans, figuratively, and enrapture an audience, continuing to think, act, and feel like a teenage boy is brilliant in both execution and courageous in concept.
It’s a quick read for all of its density, but the devil is in the details with this book, each seemingly (at the time) insignificant observation, every secret and whisper later unraveled to be of importance. This mystique, this feeling of knowing just as much as you’re supposed to know fits in well with the story as much of it is based on people withholding information, placing importance on not what’s being said sometimes but in how it’s being said.
The Starboard Sea is, in a sentence, a murder mystery and coming of age story all wrapped up in one. The authenticity of this novel shines through, revealing a world that is at once familiar and completely foreign. No stone is left unturned, no crevice left unexplored, everything, in its own time, is exposed for better or for worse. Take my word for it, the ending is well worth the build up, there are no loose ends here, no drop off. Each page propelling itself furiously forward to the next creating an anticipation while reading that is infectious in its childlike inducing excitement.
With echoes of A Separate Peace and The Secret History, this debut novel is a delightful tease, an appetizer of deliciously talented works to come from this first time author. The Starboard Sea is a harrowing look into a world usually reserved for the super elite. Thanks to Dermont, all of her readers, for a few hundred pages, get to peek behind the curtains and look for themselves.—Patrick Trotti