Sounding, a love story about two men and a woman, explores the deep currents of need and desire that influence human relationships. Although Peter and Lara Mallon have been married for eighteen years, the viability of their marriage depends on Will West, their closest friend since college. They are an odd but captivating trio. All three are only children; they are childless; they are loners; they are happiest when immersed in their work; they are haunted by their pasts, and they love the sea, which plays a prominent role in the novel.
This relationship, always fragile because of its asymmetry and its sexual ambiguity, is now threatened by events over which the characters have little control. Peter, who is anxious about his dying father and paralyzed by a paper he needs to write on Yeats for a conference in Ireland, responds to his stress by drinking too much. At the same time, Lara’s job as a biologist at a prestigious lab in Woods Hole is being threatened by an unscrupulous senior scientist, and Will, a marine mammalogist also working in Woods Hole, is contemplating leaving the northeast after he learns that his attempt to protect pilot whales from the lethal effects of Naval sonar has failed. The action begins in a beach cottage on Cape Cod, moves back and forth between Boston University, Lara’s laboratory in Woods Hole, and Will’s sail boat, Cetus. It follows Peter to Ireland, then returns to the beaches and marshes of Cape Cod Bay.
At the heart of Sounding is the question of free will in the face of the laws of nature. If we, like other species, are orchestrated by the indifferent laws of nature, then what we do or don’t do is irrelevant. This rather bleak question is explored on many levels throughout the novel. In the final chapters, it is stranding of a pod of pilot whales on Cape Cod, an event driven by the harsh realities of evolution, that demonstrates what is truly beautiful, and as well, redeemable, about the human species.
Just then, the beached whale lifted her head up off the sand, arched her back so that her back flukes rose too, and then let out one high heart-splitting squeal, pewheeeeeeeee.
The sound reamed into her. “I can’t do this,” she muttered and turned her back on the pleading whale. Part of her wanted to collapse on the beach and weep; another part of her wanted to run down the beach like a child yelling “Help, help, won’t somebody please help.” Just then, she saw Will jogging in her direction, his body moving easily in spite of the wet suit. The sight of him calmed her down immediately, even though he passed her without a glance. Once he joined the new group now forming near the mother whale, they spread out, three on each side, and waited for the next wave to help them rotate her so she was facing out to sea. As subsequent waves came and went, the men and women hefted and shoved using the power of the wave to inch her back into the water. She tried her best to fling them off, but they were as persistent as she, and when the wave they had been waiting for came in, it picked her up off the sand and floated her up and off the beach. Still holding on tight, they began to walk her out, slowly, cautiously, knowing that if she panicked, she’d beach again.
The wind from the north had picked up considerably and even though her hands and feet felt like cold rubber, Lara remained mesmerized by the knot of humans surrounding the whale. How focused they were: on the whale, on each other, anticipating each other instinctively like dancers. That Will was there, his left arm locked around the whale’s head, was comforting.
The volunteers were nearly up to their armpits when they finally let her go. For almost a minute, the animal lingered not far from them, head raised, as if waiting for instructions. Lara heard the calf’s cries before she saw the youngster slide in place beside her mother. She saw it nuzzling its mother’s head as they headed out through the roiling surf and disappeared.
The Indian summer night was churning with the songs of crickets and cicadas. As she walked toward her car, her gaze followed the glassy reflections of the lab’s security lights out toward the dark center of the harbor where Cetus compassed slowly around its anchor with the changing tide.
She was dreading the unmade bed awaiting her, the boozy smell of Peter that still lingered there, when she noticed Will’s Zodiac tied up to the seawall. That was what she needed, to sleep on the foredeck of Cetus under all those stars. She knew Will was ashore, getting his house ready to go on the market. “He won’t mind,” she whispered to the night.
In the trunk of her car, she found an army blanket and an old sweatshirt of Peter’s. “Enough,” she muttered as she tossed them down into the Zodiac. “No more.” This time, she did not question the meaning of her words, or her actions for that matter. It was enough to be in motion.
As she rowed away from the sea wall, she watched the glassy reflections of the shore lights twist into inky coils behind the boat. The water was intensely alive. She could feel its heartbeat against the bow, smell its fleshy breath as phosphorus spun off her deeply planted oars. She paused to listen to the night: a car bumping over the crease in the drawbridge; the faint thrum of an inboard engine offshore; the sweet tink tink of halyard against mast. Without deciding to, she stopped rowing toward Cetus and turned herself over to the current which was flowing toward the drawbridge and the open sea. Within seconds she was back on the front edge of her life again, her new life.
Once clear of the harbor, she began to row in earnest to escape the floodlights on the Steamship Authority buildings. Her spirit was longing for absences now, of light, of noise, of mind. Cessations.
The tide flowing out of Buzzards Bay picks up speed as it squeezes through the gap between Woods Hole and Naushon Island, and even though it was carrying her seaward at four or five knots, Lara continued to row as hard as she could, as if her survival depended on forward motion. She could not stop, not while there were still lights, still sounds, still traces of her life on shore. When Peter’s face flickered in the darkness, she did not resist it or the anger she felt, or the pain. She just rowed through these feelings until they drifted off behind her and she was alone again.
She stretched and pulled with even strokes, never pausing even when her muscles became knotted with lactic acid and her braced feet balled up with cramps, not even when the blisters on her palms loosened and flapped open. At no time did she think about what was happening, her mind was pure motion, rhythmic, insistent.
She did not slow down until she had passed the red and green lighted channel markers, the clanging bell buoys, until the lights on shore winked in the distance, and even then, not until she was utterly drained and ready to let go.
She lifted the oars and oarlocks from their couplings and placed them on the floor along the sides of the dinghy. Kneeling down on the rigid floor, she unsnapped the plastic seat she had been sitting on, held it suspended over her lap, unsure where to put it, then tossed it overboard. She spread the army blanket over the bottom of the boat, bunching the extra fabric against the sides until it formed a nest. Then she eased herself into it and lay back, her head resting on the bulge of the bow, her feet just touching the transom. A perfect fit, except for the oars, which were crowding her shoulders. She stared at them blankly for a moment, then threw them overboard as well.
After putting on Peter’s sweatshirt, she lowered herself back down again and drew the flaps of the blanket about her.
Overhead, the Milky Way arched into the night. Lara located the pole star about halfway up. Tethered to it, Cassiopeia and her husband, King Cepheus, chased each other round and round. She star-hopped out of the Milky Way over to their daughter Andromeda, who was lying on her back, shaking her chains–at her father probably, because he had bound her to a rock as a sacrifice to a troublesome sea monster.