The Seal Wife

Chosen as a Notable Book of 2002 by The New York Times Book Review


A stunning and hypnotic novel by “a writer of extraordinary gifts” [Tobias Wolff], The Seal Wife tells the story of a young scientist and his consuming love for a woman known as Aleut. In 1915, Bigelow is sent to establish a weather observatory in Anchorage, Alaska, and finds that nothing has prepared him for the loneliness of a railroad town of over two thousand men and only a handful of women, of winter nights twenty hours long. And nothing can protect him from obsession-both with a woman, who seems in her silence and mystery to possess the power to destroy his life forever, and with the weather kite he designs to fly higher than any kite has ever flown before, a kite with which Bigelow plans to penetrate and know not just the sky but the heavens.

A novel of passions both dangerous and generative, The Seal Wife explores the nature of desire and its ability to propel an individual beyond himself and outside conventions. Harrison brilliantly re-creates the Alaskan frontier during the period of the first World War and in lyrical prose explores the interior landscape of the psyche and human emotions – a landscape eerily continuous with the splendor and terror of the frozen frontier, the storms that blow over the earth and its face.


“Harrison has created some of the most wildly diverse narrative worlds in contemporary fiction. . . . [she] employs simple, intensely focused prose, with some chapters consisting of a single, exquisite paragraph in the middle of a too large page, surrounded, like Bigelow, by profound emptiness, The language of The Seal Wife is, like the landscape itself, stripped down and barren…. In The Seal Wife the nature of obsession is not limited to the self-indulgence of romantic love. It is obsession that feeds explorers who dare to go beyond safely charted territories, as Harrison has done once again.”–San Francisco Chronicle

“Harrison is adept at transporting readers to strange new landscapes often called the dark recesses of the human mind…. Harrison is a poetic writer and an imaginative storyteller who grounds her work in well-researched details of different times and places…. Bigelow’s peaceful interludes with the seal wife are memorable, as is the apparent message that man should remain linked to nature even as civilization approaches.”–USA Today

“Harrison will amaze readers with the ostensibly effortless manner in which she describes both the bleak terrain of Alaska and the alien terrain of Bigelow’s own compulsive thoughts. At the root of this story is the interplay between seclusion and desire. Harrison forceful develops this primal conflict.”–Library Journal

“A beautiful novel, elegant and brief, profoundly reverent toward the dignity of its characters and the redemptive possibilities of passion, endurance, and work.”–O Magazine
“Superb, perfect, one might even say—soaring.” —The Seattle Times

“Lyrical passages…reads like profound poetry…the most enterprising and successful portrait of a man in heat by a female writer since Joyce Carol Oates’ tumultuously orgasmic What I Lived For.” —Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune

“Intricately wrought…Harrison imbues her solitary silence with a stately air of self-possession.” —Maria Russo, The New York Times Book Review

“This…mesmerizing tale is dizzying in intensity; its startling story twists are borne along by prose as austere and powerful as Alaska’s icescape. The novel’s undertow of anguish will resonate with anyone who has tried to make sense of desire….Chilled to perfection.” —People

“Mesmerizing…harrowing in its emotional intensity, haunting in its evocation of a distant time and place.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Chimerical and probing, Harrison creates utterly different realms in each of her acute, highly stylized novels, yet all chart the course of obsessive desire. More concentrated and dreamier than its predecessors, including The Binding Chair (2000), her fifth novel takes place in 1915. Bigelow, a handsome and intrepid 26-year-old meteorologist, moves to Anchorage, Alaska, to establish a weather station. Suffering from the cold, extremes of dark and light, and cultural deprivation, he fusses diligently with his instruments, maps, and logbooks, and builds an enormous kite, which he hopes will help him prove a theory about polar air. Uncomfortable with the hardscrabble town’s macho men, he falls hard for a mysterious Aleut woman who never speaks or shows any emotion, even during sex. Then she disappears. Devastated, desperately lonely, and sexually starved, Bigelow gets entangled in a bizarre situation with yet another silent woman. Harrison writes with a curiously voluptuous efficiency as she gives rein to her endearingly hapless hero’s feverish mind, and explores the brutal dynamics of a frontier town where the ambitions of outsiders collide with indigenous wisdom. Painterly in its pearlescent evocation of the Alaskan landscape, steeped in myth and the magic of science, this is a delectably moody, erotic, and provocative cross-cultural love story. “-Donna Seaman, Booklist

Sexual Obsession in Frontier Alaska
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

In her much talked about 1997 memoir, ”The Kiss,” Kathryn Harrison chronicled the horrors of incest she was subjected to as a young woman; and given that past, it’s not surprising that her imagination should incline toward the lurid and the extreme. Still, her earlier novels have tended to be marred by melodramatic excesses, redeemed only by her psychological insight and her instinctive storytelling talents: ”Exposure” voyeuristically dwelled on the pornographic photographs a man took of his daughter; ”The Binding Chair” focused in graphic detail on the grisly Chinese practice of foot binding.

With ”The Seal Wife,” her mesmerizing new novel, however, Ms. Harrison renounces this sort of sensationalistic material and the needlessly complicated plots she has employed in the past to tell a simple story of love and obsession, a story that is harrowing in its emotional intensity, haunting in its evocation of a distant time and place.

Set during World War I in Anchorage, which was then a frontier town, ”The Seal Wife” recounts the tale of a young man named Bigelow who has been sent there by the government to establish a weather observatory. It is an isolated posting in a town subject to paralyzing cold and ice and sudden, unexpected thaws; a town where people learn to make do without newspapers and hot baths; a town where the incessant howling of the dog-sled teams makes Bigelow think of ”the death of civilization,” ”the death of reason.”

Bigelow’s job — mapping air currents and taking precipitation and barometric readings — sometimes strikes him as absurd. ”He isn’t drawing mountains or rivers or canyons, all those features of the earth that have existed for eons,” Ms. Harrison writes, ”and neither is he mapping countries or cities or even streets, the work of centuries. No, Bigelow records ephemera: clouds; a fall of rain or of snow; hailstones that, after their furious clatter, melt silently into the ground. Like recounting a sigh.”

There are few women in Anchorage, and Bigelow suffers from both unrequited lust and terrible loneliness, until he meets an enigmatic woman known only as the Aleut. She never speaks to Bigelow, never shows him a shred of emotion, but he becomes obsessed with her and vows to crack the carapace of her reserve.

The two begin a highly ritualized affair: several evenings a week, Bigelow arrives at the woman’s door bearing a duck or rabbit he has shot; she prepares the food for dinner, and after their repast the couple go to bed. He tells her about his work and his dream of building a giant kite that will take atmospheric readings miles above the earth, but she never says a word. After they have sex, she takes a bath, while he prepares to leave.

One day the Aleut refuses to let Bigelow into her house, and several days later she vanishes without a trace. Her disappearance throws Bigelow into an acute depression. He searches for her in vain. He succumbs to nightmares and brooding daydreams, wondering whether he has offended her, whether she was perhaps pregnant with his child, whether she has found another man. He tries to lose himself in his work: building the giant kite that will prove his scientific theories about the circulation of air and make his name. It is a dream made up in equal parts of hubris and common sense, and it will lead to an experiment that will endanger Bigelow’s life.

Months and seasons pass, and eventually another woman — Miriam Getz, the daughter of the general store’s owner — catches Bigelow’s eye. Bigelow is told by her bullying and larcenous father that he must marry her, but he realizes that even in her company he thinks only of the Aleut, who has magically reappeared in town.

Ms. Harrison narrates these events with uncommon grace, limning the frozen landscape of early-20th-century Alaska with the same easy authority she brings to the delineation of Bigelow’s turbulent state of mind. She demonstrates, with more assurance than she did in ”The Binding Chair,” that she is capable of writing historical fiction that possesses all the immediacy and harsh poetry of reportage. And she once again demonstrates her ability to evoke the sensual qualities of everyday life, while using language that is considerably sparer than she has used before but equally hypnotic.

Like her earlier novels, ”The Seal Wife” takes on the subject of passion and its capacity to warp or derail a life. But in this volume Ms. Harrison not only makes us understand the destructive consequences of sexual obsession, but also makes us appreciate its power to shape an individual’s sense of self, its ability to inspire and perhaps even to redeem the past.