Seven brothers run away from home together, walking, hitchhiking, and stealing onto a train to reach the place of their dreams. As plots go, this sounds like a fairly traditional children's novel filled with bravery, independence, and adventure.
Originally written in French by Jean-Calude Mourlevat, Y. Maudet's English translation of The Pull of the Ocean definitely leaves me wondering whether it is an accurate portrayal of the original (which in turn is loosely based on and references the fairytale Le Petit Poucet by Charles Perrault).
While the story itself at its bare bones feels very much like a classic runaway story, the atmosphere is radically different from that associated with similar childish shenanigans. Instead of humor, angst, or even thrill, the tale is fraught from the opening sentence with a tension generally associated with dramas written for an older audience. While many books seek to create ongoing curiosity, The Pull of the Ocean establishes and maintains a sense of anxiety akin to that of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca or John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. The latter even has a central character with an uncanny resemblance to Yann of The Pull of the Ocean... A tiny boy, disconcertingly old for his size, preternaturally wise for his age.
As is often the case with unnaturally brilliant characters, it is hard to relate to Yann on a deep personal level. However, aside from Yann, The Pull of the Ocean does an amazing job of creating instantly real and understandable characters, especially for a book that skips lightly from one perspective to another, seldom returning for a second glance. When the brief tale is told, it is hard to believe that in real life Pascal isn't heading to work, Valérie to school, and Victor to nurse his aching feet. And that, perhaps, only makes the story even more bittersweet.