My first attempt at recommending The House in The Cerulean Sea went something like this.
Me: You HAVE TO read this book. It is brilliant!
Colleague at work (who I barely know but who loves to read): Sure, heard of it, M/M right?
Colleague: The central pairing is that of two male characters, so M/M.
Me: Yes, I did not know that is something I should specify while recommending the book.
Colleague: Chill! I would love to read it, but not everyone reads M/M, so it is just politically correct to tell people upfront.
It never even crossed my mind. I do warn people when a book has explicit erotica, so that they do not leave it lying around for their bosses or kids to find. This book was just a wonderful read. But the next person I recommended the book to, said that she does not read that kind of stuff. And I felt inexplicably sad for her. Because someone like her absolutely needed to read this book.
The first book I ever loved was Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. It was the first time I daydreamed, “don’t you wish you were here”. Then, I grew up, and the wonder of reading something imaginative, of losing oneself in a different world, melted away. For instance, the amazing experience of reading Harry Potter became tainted by the adult realization that Hogwarts embodied the principle of “divide and educate” and that Dumbledore was an emotionally manipulative ass.
We mature into jaded and thick-skinned adults. It is our only armour against reality, one where no one is genuinely good or evil. And most importantly, one in which there is no magic.
Last year, when we were caged indoors by a virus, my sister hounded me till I started reading The House in The Cerulean Sea. I had no expectations when I started it – had no clue about the story or the author. I never for a moment believed that this book could distract me from the perpetually howling sirens of ambulances going past my building.
And then something wonderful happened, something that had not happened in years. After a long time, I fell in love with a book again.
Linus Baker, the unlikely, rotund protagonist of our story had made his peace with his waistline, a government job as an orphanage inspector, an ill-tempered cat, a nosy neighbour, and a tiny house in a gloomy city. He is remarkable in his ordinariness. The first example of how the author has done something magical, is how I, the reader, was in Linus’s shoes before the first two chapters were over. Whether he was performing his inspections or filling out paperwork, cowering before his boss or listening to soulful music alone at night, I was right there, feeling what he felt. I bet you too see a new scenic wallpaper pop up on your work screen every other day and feel, “Don’t you wish you were here?” After that momentary stab of longing, you click your mouse and consign that wish to the backburner of your mind, to allow room for even more daily drudgery. You know how Linus feels because it is how anyone feels most of the time, trapped and not accepting it.
Then Linus is assigned to inspect an orphanage unlike any other, with seven children unlike any magical youth he has seen before. And this is where the author had me hook, line, and sinker. Each child is characterized and fleshed out so beautifully that their magical ability becomes the least important thing about them. We walk into this story just like Linus with our walls up, impervious, insulated, our preconceived notions in tow, and are slowly but surely disarmed by the wonderful characters. Talia, a female gnome shows Linus the value of forgiveness. Sal, a shapeshifter, teaches him how to be brave. Chauncy a monstrous blob, shows him how powerful a catalyst hope can be. Phee, a forest sprite, embodies inner strength. He learns what is truly precious from Theodore, a wyvern. And watching Lucy, son of Lucifer, the Antichrist, the one who he feared the most, Linus realises that goodness is not innate. It is a constant struggle to remain good when the whole world and even your own conscience wills you to do wrong, but it is a battle worth winning.
And finally, Linus meets Arthur, the master of the orphanage, a surrogate father to the children everyone feared, and no one wanted. It is through Arthur’s eyes that we watch Linus transform from a jaded caseworker to a man who starts questioning the rules and regulations that he had held sacrosanct for all his professional life. We see how Linus’s willingness to learn, to embrace change, to experience wonder, to let go of unfounded fears, to take a chance on happiness, is also its own kind of magic. On an island in the cerulean sea, Linus finds what he had never missed, a family, in the truest sense of the word.
This is a story that much like its characters, defies labels. It has magical characters, but it is not a fantasy. It has a love story, but it is not a romance. It is deeply philosophical, but it is not a sermon. When I was reading the book, it felt like I was tucking into a bowl of my grandma’s hot khichdi on a pouring Sunday afternoon, warm, cozy, and included… it felt like coming home.
Last but not the least, if like me, you were a philistine who only heard Britney Spears and boybands while growing up, do yourself a favour and listen to the songs mentioned throughout the book as you are reading it. The book introduced me to Bobby Darin, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, and to the day the music died. I cried as I closed my eyes along with Linus and heard the Everly brothers croon “Dream, dream, dream…” I will forever be indebted to the writer for introducing me to a whole new genre of incredible music that was completely foreign to me.
And I wish that someday in the not so far future, I will not be writing a review for a beautiful book only during Pride month just because the central characters are gay. That I will be able to recommend a book like this without any disclaimers. Don’t you already wish you were there!
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Listen to episode 29 for some fun LGBTQ themed book recommendations.