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Seahorse by Janice Pariat

Much like the sea in its title, this erotically-charged novel rolls effortlessly between past and present, India and the UK, in a thought-provoking meditation on time and love.

Seahorse by Janice Pariat
Seahorse, Janice Pariat (The Unnamed Press, January 2016; RandomHouse India, December 2014)

On the surface, the story is a retelling of the Greek myth concerning the sea god Poseidon who adopts a younger man, Pelops, as his apprentice and sexual partner. Later in life, Pelops enlists his former lover’s help to win the hand of Hippodamia, whose father has a nasty habit of killing off her suitors.

The action begins in New Delhi in the 1990s where Nehemiah, an impressionable college student, falls in love with Nicholas, a young professor from London. Their romantic idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Myra, Nicholas’s “sister”, whose visit spells the end of the affair and Nicholas’s eventual—and sudden—departure.

Left alone, Nem (his nickname) moves on to a career as an art critic and eventually picks up a research fellowship at a university in contemporary London. Although still haunted by the past, especially by the death of his school friend, Lenny, Nem experiences moderate success until, seemingly by chance, he comes back into contact with Myra and events take a surprising turn.


Short-story author Janice Pariat, in her first novel, clearly flags the association with the legend, sometimes with irony: Nicholas is even referred to by another student as a “Greek god”. Nem is (willingly) subjected to a fast-paced programme of classical music and whisky appreciation while horse-riding features as the modern day equivalent of Pelops’s chariot-racing challenge.

A more important parallel, however, is choice of sexual partner. Just like their Hellenic counterparts, gender is no barrier for both Nicholas and Nem. They seamlessly swop between sexes, conveniently creating some plot twists but also highlighting Pariat’s point that love does not recognize the borders within which society would like to pigeonhole it.

Subplots exploring lesbianism, transvestism and polyamory reinforce the message that sexuality can be more than a binary straight-gay choice.

This kind of “fluidity” is a key theme of Seahorse. Pariat shows that time, as well as sexuality, is equally mercurial, thus deconstructing notions of time as purely linear.

This plays out firstly through the structure of the novel, which moves so flawlessly between past and present that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other, and secondly through the character of Nem, whose present is mired in previous episodes.

Pariat describes this paradox through a scene in a gallery where Nem views an art work made of mirrors. The assistant tells him that for the Aymara people in the Andes, the past lies ahead of you because you can see it. The future is actually behind us, being unknown and unseen. Nem reflects:


Standing there, glimpsing myself in those strange paintings, I thought of how they inhabit the same, and different worlds entirely, one perpetually in the state of becoming the other. Yet there is a moment, in the split second when you lift a finger to the mirror when they touch, and are inexplicably identical.


Although time itself may be elastic, Pariat does discern a kind of pattern in it for humanity. At the novel’s end, Nem sees a train track as a metaphor for his own story. He muses:


At times, there is only one way back, and one way forward. Only a single line, out of so many, that takes you where you were always meant to be.


Such a statement asks whether we are subject to fortune’s whims rather than being masters of our own destiny. There is room also to infer that history may dictate our paths forward. Pariat does not offer any hard and fast conclusions. Instead, she leaves the reader with the suggestion that humans may be rather like seahorses: “upright they glide, rather than swim, moving with the current.”

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.