Into the Blue by Pene Henson (July 7, 2016); 236 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.
“Sometimes we don’t get to keep things exactly the same. They can still be good.”
–Hannah, in Into the Blue
The Blue House is a crumbling, aqua blue seaside house on the North shore of Oahu. It’s home to a small found family of surfer kids: Tai Talegi, Ollie Birkstrom, Ollie’s younger brother Jaime, Hannah and Sunny. The ocean is practically at their back door, so they spend their days surfing the Banzai Pipeline and working or going to school when they must. The story centers around Tai, a budding board shaper, and his best friend Ollie, a world class surfer clawing his way back to the top after a pretty rough injury had knocked him out of competitions.
When Ollie gets tapped to compete in a worldwide tour surfing competition that will take him to places as far flung as Australia, Tahiti and South Africa, he asks Tai to come along as his supporter, board tech and coach. Though they have the “greatest friendship in the world,” once they’re away from their normal lives and everyday family, they discover that they can—and must—have more together.
Of course, it’s not as easy as that, and of course, things get in the way. But what’s central here is a kind of lighthearted-yet-determined struggling: the beachy, slapped-together home life of all the kids (who care for each other and work for each other to make a tight and fiercely intimate little family); Ollie’s climb back from injury to compete as a world class surfer; Ollie and Tai’s shaky, nascent love as it grows, a love which pulls them closer and farther apart like a tide, everyone’s desire to Figure It Out (the It being What to Do in the World and Whom to Be). This made me long for the days of that kind of brilliant patchwork life, full of uncertainty and people and love and risk and absolute newness, as difficult as it was rewarding. I remember windows wide open on weekend mornings, coffee cooling on the stove, sprawling meals we all cobbled together around a second-hand table (avocado, pancakes, a bowl of cold black beans, whatever we could scrounge, held together not by how well it fit but by how hungry we all were, how determined we were to call it a meal). The shared meal was the one moment of stillness we found together in our otherwise wide-scattered lives. This book puts me back there, in the best of ways. Life in the Blue House is like this.
It strikes me that this book is about people trying hard to hang on, trying to keep alive what’s precious to them. It’s what everyone in this book is doing: Blue House life is threatened again and again (by everything from absence to eviction) and the kids have to figure out how to persist; Tai tries to discover how to do what he loves while still staying loyal; Ollie’s trying to hang on to his life as a surfer though it’s really hard work that pulls his focus and sends him far away; Jaime’s on the cusp of college and all the kinds of leaving-behind that usually entails; Ollie and Tai find love but don’t know how to bring it home (for them, home threatens their love and their love threatens their home, and there’s no clear solution). Everyone is desperately trying to hang on. (And I’m refraining from making the point that surfing is also about hanging on, mostly because I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to surfing. I can barely balance myself on land.) Okay, and that’s another thing I can say: it’s about trying to find your balance. And let me point to back to that quotation with which I started: it’s about finding new and beautiful kinds of good, without needing to hold rigidly to what was good in the past.
There’s lots in this book you won’t see coming. That seems to me to be part of the point: insecurity, searching for solid ground (even surfers, seriously). There’s a lot that threatens to tip over, and the gentle suspense is tightened by the backdrop of Ollie’s progress in the worldwide surfing competition as we see it through Tai’s eyes. It is, at its heart, a love story between two men who have always been friends, but that story is intertwined so skillfully with a comeback story, and with several different coming-into-oneself stories. The writing and the pacing are exactly right for this: quick, smart, clean, but descriptive enough to stir up real longing in the reader.
Everything in this book presses you forward, and you move with it happily, looking for the end you both want and don’t want. Is that a surfing metaphor? Not intentionally. Like I said, I have no idea what I’m talking about there. But it strikes me that bodies of water do that: ebb and flow, undertow, push forward at the same time you pull back. It seems like the whole exercise of surfing, like reading, may be self-defeating: the joy is in the brief ride that must be brief to be joyful. The very thing (the wave, the book) that thrusts you onward must inevitably come to an end and leave you behind.
Happily, unlike waves, which you can only ride once before they’re gone forever, you can re-read and re-read a book.